It didn’t work out where Robertson could play, but he soon started working with coaches who were at the time in charge of the players’ health.
A few years later, he came back to work as the school’s full-time athletic trainer, a role in which he spent 38 years. A member of the ETSU Sports Hall of Fame, he was also instrumental in the return of football after the program was dropped in 2003.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE YOU WERE GOING TO BE AN ATHLETIC TRAINER?
Robertson: “Coach Shorty Fry was a line coach, but he was also the coach in charge of working with the doctors in case of an injury. One of the team doctors was Hal Sherrod, who started Watauga Orthopedics in 1950, and the other was Dr. Burgin E. Dossett Jr., who was with Johnson City Internal Medicine. A unique thing is both of their fathers had been president of the university.
“When I watched that work, I thought I’d like to do that. I made some friends and the student who was helping with football took a job downtown. I asked Coach Fry about it and he let me help him. The next couple of years, I got to work with basketball and Coach Jack Maxey under Madison Brooks. I lived in the dorm where most of the athletes were. When I was senior, I looked and the University of Tennessee and larger schools had full-time trainers.
“I wrote different trainers from the SEC and ACC about the possibility of being a graduate assistant. I ended up going to Mississippi State. About the time I was finishing my masters, East Tennessee State decided to hire a trainer. I’m sure Dr. Sherrod, Dr. Dossett and a coach that was helping with football injuries, Coach O’Brien, talked to President Dossett and were responsible for me coming back.”
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK AT 38 YEARS IN THE ETSU ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT, IS THERE ONE PARTICULAR TIME OF HELPING AN ATHLETE WHICH STANDS OUT?
Robertson: “We had an all-conference linebacker Doug Linebarger from Greeneville. He was in the Tennessee-Virginia All-Star Game and he was practicing over at Lees-McRae. He had a major injury to his ankle and was brought to Johnson City, where Dr. Sherrod operated on his ankle. He stayed with me for a year and didn’t play his freshman year.
“We worked hard on his ankle and conditioned him. He got where he could play and then he was a senior on the (Grantland) Rice Bowl team. He asked, ‘Do you think I can wear low-cuts like the other players and get out of these boots you’ve had me in?’ I told him, ‘Sure, you’ve done great.
“He became a high school official, a SEC official, all the way up the ladder, even worked a national championship game. The last time I saw him I asked how his ankle was. He said, ‘It’s great, but the other one is killing me now. Can you do anything about that?’ It was dislocated and they reduced enough in Banner Elk to move him to Johnson City where Dr. Sherrod repaired it.”
WHAT IS THE FEELING WHEN YOU HELP AN ATHLETE RECOVER FROM AN INJURY AND GET HE OR SHE BACK ON THE FIELD, COURT, TRACK?
Robertson: “It’s a feeling down deep that’s hard to explain. A lot of these athletes have overcome some great obstacles and done well. Coach John Robert Bell had a deal at the end of the season, an open mic where the guys could say what they wanted to.
“I remember a player who didn’t say 10 words the whole year say, ‘I never told many folks that I loved them. I want you guys to know I’m going to graduate in June and I love you and I’m going to miss you.’ To see a big strong tackle, get up and say that, it feels good.”
WHEN IT SEEMED LIKE MOST HAD GIVEN UP ON ETSU FOOTBALL, YOU STAYED VIGILANT IN BRINGING IT BACK. WHAT KEPT PUSHING YOU WHEN THE ODDS APPEARED TO BE STACKED AGAINST YOU?
Robertson: “To see the value of sports to the university, to the individual. Not just one sport, I saw guys and gals come there and better their lives. It was their chance to better their lives and to better their families. I know one time we had a guy come there without two nickels to rub together. He earned a scholarship and the last time I talked to him, he was a retired vice president of a large corporation.
“When you drop football, you drop the band. When I started at Watauga Orthopedics, I pulled into Hampton to talk to (football) coach (J.C.) Campbell. I was making my rounds and the band was practicing. I thought there has to be at least one boy and one girl from that band who wants to go to East Tennessee State.
“When Dr. Noland put this back in, it helped a lot of people. There aren’t many things that make money on campus other than the bookstore and cafeteria. More than that, I’ve seen a number of people who have a better chance in life because of football and other sports.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO SEE THE NEW FOOTBALL STADIUM, THE OTHER SPORTS FACILITIES AND THE SUCCESS OF THE ATHLETIC PROGRAMS?
Robertson: “It’s what I always thought we would do, get to the corner and turn. With time, Dr. Noland, (athletic director) Scott Carter and the staff they have, it makes you throw out your chest. The other part is the community. We lost something for a while and now the community is taking care of it.
“One of my goals when I was at ETSU was to be able to walk outside the Dome and scalp a ticket and not get arrested. It’s one of my goals now, to be in the parking lot and scalp a ticket. If I’m able to, I will give the money to the athletic department. But, I want tickets to be in that demand.
“I’m sure all the coaches we’ve had would be proud of what they contributed. Not just football, hopefully one day we will get a new track. We have a nice baseball park and now Freedom Hall is first class. We’re on our way and I hope we keep climbing.”