Judging by reaction to news that former East Tennessee State trainer Jerry “Doc” Robertson was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame last month, Buccaneers athletes, coaches and co-workers felt like they truly were under Doc’s “care” at ETSU.
Whether he was keeping 1996 Southern Conference freshman of the year tailback Brandon Walker healthy enough to chew up record-setting yardage or keeping 1968 Ohio Valley Conference player of the year Skeeter Swift from chewing up his tongue during a seizure after landing on his head as the result of a botched dunk, Robertson tended to Bucs like family.
Former ETSU guard/linebacker Harry Harman, who enrolled at ETSU with Robertson in 1959, congratulated Robertson with a dinner at The Peerless on Tuesday. Among the 22 in attendance were fellow ETSU Hall of Famers Jimmy “Wink” Baker, Pete Wilson and Dave Walker.
“Jerry’s been a good friend ever since we started school together out there in 1959,” Harman said. “Jerry cut his teeth on us. He learned how to tape and all that kind of stuff, and of course, he soon began to get ideas of his own. …
“He’s a very humble person and he is an excellent listener. Jerry’s meant a lot to the university. He’s been a face for the university for years. He’s done a lot for the community.”
According to Brandon Walker, Robertson enhanced the durability that enabled him to become ETSU’s career leader in rushing yards (4,095) and rushing touchdowns (43). Walker also owns the Bucs’ single-game rushing record (242).
“Really, Doc was the perfect trainer to me,” Walker said. “He always got my body ready to play the next game whenever I had an injury, no matter how serious it was. I never missed a game, because of Doc. We know that’s rare for a running back to play all four years of college football and not miss a game. Besides being a great trainer, Doc is a special man and I will never forget him.”
Robertson was also instrumental in the career of ETSU Hall of Fame defensive back Donnie Cook, a two-time All-Southern Conference selection (1981-82) and 1982 All-America.
“When I was a sophomore, I stayed hurt with ankle problems most of the year,” Cook said. “Not a good year for us that year on the field; I believe we were 3-8. Anyway, the doctors were wanting me to have surgery on both ankles and I was resistant. Coach Robertson sat me down and talked to me for an hour or so and said that he felt I should have it done, and why he thought so.
“At 19 years old, the thought of major surgery is a scary thing. But with my respect for him, I then had them both operated on. I came back the next year with his guidance (working my butt off all summer) to have an all-conference year. I would have never had the surgery done if he had not thought I should have it done. … I have the utmost respect for him both professionally and personally.”
Former ETSU football player and assistant coach C.M. Boggs helped Harman organize the Peerless dinner, which included current ETSU trainer Brian Johnston and another whom Robertson mentored, Ray Parlier.
“They both said that he was their boss and a friend,” Boggs said. “And no matter what they did — if they did something tragically wrong — he would be very calm about it.”
Robertson’s understudies included Georgia Tech trainer Jay Shoop, who has been the head trainer for the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shoop also was the chief trainer for the Olympic Village in 1996 in Atlanta and the 1994 Goodwill Games in Russia.
“Jerry had opportunities, too, but he never would leave East Tennessee State,” Boggs said. “That’s how loyal he was to that university. Even though he could have made more money and done all the things that we all strive to do, he was loyal to the university. And that’s a legacy that’s pretty strong, I think.”
Receiver Pat Hauser caught seven touchdown passes during ETSU's 1969 season, which culminated with a lopsided victory against Terry Bradshaw-led Louisiana Tech in the Grantland Rice Bowl. Before he married his wife Connie, Hauser and her used to babysit for Robertson and his wife Jeanie.
There were other growing pains involving Robertson. Hauser suffered an injury in a 1968 practice.
"The Monday before the Chattanooga game it was decided that I would be the tailback on Saturday," said Hauser, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1970 but suffered a knee injury on a kickoff return during their final exhibition game. "That being the case and the fact that I had never played tailback, Coach (John Robert) Bell had me working longer than normal in preparing for the game. In the Tuesday practice my helmet came down and struck the bridge of my nose, which caused a severe nosebleed. Jerry stuck a rolled-up piece of gauze in each nostril and I finished practice.
"Afterwards I went up to him and said, 'Coach, why won’t my nose stop bleeding?' He looked at me and in his drawl that we all grew fondly accustomed to said, 'Hauser, I think your nose is broke.' And, as usual, he was right. The splint that the doctor glued on my nose fell off on the plane ride to Chattanooga."
Former ETSU football player Mike Hensley described Robertson as a “Rock of Gibraltar kind of figure” at ETSU who “wanted the best for you” and treated athletes — everyone — with knowhow and compassion.
“He certainly derserves a lot of thanks and humble gratitude for his service and presence at ETSU,” Hensley said. “You do not get many with his salt.”
Said former ETSU quarterback Jamey Chadwell, now the head coach at North Greenville University: “What I remember most is his passion for Buc football. The team was his family. As you know, I was in the training room quite a bit. He told me if I spent anymore time in there they were going to name a table after me with that grin of his.”
Robertson has become the face of ETSU football’s ghost – and hopeful reincarnation – thanks to the Buc Football and Friends Foundation he organized. Indeed, Robertson seems to have mended everything except the broken heart he suffered when the program was discontinued following the 2003 season.
But Robertson was a key cog in the basketball program, too. In fact, he drove one of the vehicles when the late ’60s Bucs teams often traveled via three station wagons, and he said players wanting sleep often opted for his because he played country music.
“Jerry is one of the best whose greatest asset was/is his concern for others,” said Glen Korobov, an assistant on Madison Brooks’ 1967-68 Sweet 16 team.
Basketball coach Alan LeForce, whose Bucs beat Arizona in the first round of the 1992 NCAA tournament: “Jerry was a good friend of mine. He was an excellent trainer and worker. He got along well with coaches, administration and people in the community.”
Robertson was driven. Former ETSU basketball coach Jim Hallihan recalls him spending a great deal of time planning the training room when the Mini-Dome was under construction.
But Robertson always kept both feet on the ground, which is often evidenced by his deadpan sense of humor.
“Chuck Kimmell was his assistant and … we would play backgammon on the long bus rides,” Hallihan said. “One day we had stopped to eat at a Sizzlin’ Steak House (which was big time for us) and Chuck went to pay and his wallet was not in his pants pocket. There had been only two places on the bus where he sat — next to me and in the bathroom. Well, the wallet was not in the seat next to me, so he called Jerry when he discovered it was in the toilet on the bus and asked what he should do. Jerry calmly said, ‘Be sure to hold your breath if you have to go under.’”
Some say such homespun humor and Robertson’s modesty veil his wealth of knowledge to the average eye. But as his Hall of Fame induction attests, Robertson’s contemporaries know better.
ETSU professor emeritus/author Jack Higgs, who played football and wrote “God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America,” dined with a group Friday that included three physicians. Coincidentally, they had commended Robertson’s humility and expertise in sports medicine.
“Another wise person I know, also a physician, remarked that as we go through life, if we see a chance to help somebody else, do it. This was the credo of Jerry Robertson as legions of his admirers will testify,” Higgs said. “In sports, I was one of those who came off the fields of play with more injuries than kudos. Over the years at ETSU, I never failed to check with Jerry on recurring ailments and those emerging with age and was never disappointed in his counsel and recommendation for therapy.”
Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman, an ETSU graduate and former assistant coach: “Jerry Robertson is an icon in the world of athletics and is known to be the legend, but also a nice enough and great human to work with my mother, who had arthritis and wasn’t a famous athlete.”
Johnston succeeded Robertson at ETSU in 2003.
“Pretty much everything I have I owe to him,” Johnston said. “I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the athletic training program at ETSU and met my wife (Sherri). We have been married for 13 years and have two boys (Derek and Isaac) who love to pick blackberries at Doc’s house.
“There has never been a time when I need to talk to him or needed his help that he wasn’t there. From helping to get our Christmas tree, helping to cut wood (No. 1 rule – never use chainsaw alone) or hanging drywall, Coach Robertson is always there. … I rarely see him when he doesn’t say, ‘How can I help you?’”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.