Winter 2002


Trainer Gary Nicholson worked with the pros but prefers the Lutes

For Gary Nicholson, there have been a lot of years and thousands of rolls of tape between Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks and PLU shortstop Chris Ullom.

Gary Nicholson
Trainer Gary Nicholson works with PLU football player Chris Linderman.

Nicholson, PLU’s longtime athletic trainer, has been taping ankles and setting broken bones—and teaching how to tape ankles and set broken bones—since coming on board on a part-time basis in 1973. Athletes, and the athletics program, are better for his involvement.

"Few people, in my experience, better exemplify the meaning of true servant," says Dr. Paul Hoseth, athletic director and dean of the School of Physical Education.

Ironically, Nicholson never intended to be an athletic trainer. Growing up in the small southern Idaho town of Jerome, he dreamed of a career in medical law. He attended College of Idaho (now Albertson College) in Caldwell as a pre-law major who also happened to be a center on the basketball team.

"My second year there (the coaches) brought in a bigger and better player," recalls Nicholson. In fact, that bigger and better player was a scoring wonder named Taft Jackson, who set a school record by averaging 33 points per game. Nicholson was left with a couple of options. Either learn how to handle the ball better as a forward, or become the team’s athletic trainer, which the school didn’t have.

The latter option was presented only because Nicholson had been taking some medical-related classes as part of his emphasis in medical law. He decided to take the first step down the path that led him through major league baseball and eventually to PLU.

During the summer months between his final two years at College of Idaho, Nicholson hooked on as athletic trainer for the Caldwell Cubs, a rookie league team in the Chicago Cubs’ system "The manager there said that if I studied and was interested, I probably could advance in (professional) baseball (as an athletic trainer)," says Nicholson. His timing was perfect; pro baseball was just then putting a stronger emphasis on athletic training.

Nicholson pursued his new dream in graduate school at Indiana University, then the only school in the country offering a master’s degree in athletic training. At Indiana he worked with a Rose Bowl football team, a top-ranked men’s soccer team, and a swimming team that included seven-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz.

After graduation, Nicholson’s connection with the Chicago Cubs paid off in a position with the team’s Class AAA minor league team in Tacoma. Not only was the newly married 23-year-old responsible for the health and well-being of the Cubs’ top-level minor league players, he was placed in charge of all of Chicago’s minor league trainers and of the Cubs’ players at winter instructional league in Arizona. He became the assistant athletic trainer for the Cubs three years later. A year after that, in 1972, he was the head trainer.

This was the Cubs team of shortstop and later first baseman Ernie Banks (he of the famous "It’s a great day to play two" line), slugging third baseman Ron Santo, hitter extraordinaire and outfielder Billy Williams and feisty manager Leo "The Lip" Durocher.

That summer of 1973, Nicholson served as the athletic trainer for the National League All-Star team, managed by Sparky Anderson. Among the players he worked with were home run champion Hank Aaron from Atlanta, Cincinnati Reds legends Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, New York Mets pitching ace Tom Seaver and San Francisco Giants slugger Willie McCovey.

Nicholson eventually moved back to the Pacific Northwest as trainer for the fledgling Seattle Mariners, where he stayed until 1982. While with Seattle, he served as the American League’s athletic trainer for the 1979 All-Star game at the Kingdome, earning the distinction as the only person to serve as head athletic trainer for both leagues in the "mid-summer classic."

His life in baseball gave Nicholson an opportunity to meet baseball stars, two presidents (Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford), and a smattering of movie stars such as Jonathan Winters, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. For the first 10 years of their marriage, however, Gary and his wife, Laura, lived in 23 different houses or apartments as they traveled from one location to another for Gary’s work. As the season started, there were weeks in the Arizona desert for spring training, followed by long months in either Chicago or Seattle, then trips back to Arizona for winter instructional baseball.

Add in the long days on the road, including an 18-day road trip with the Mariners that he recalls ruefully, and Nicholson saw the need for a more stable life. "With the kids in school, you just weren’t able to be involved in their activities," he says. Besides, "baseball was changing and going a direction I wasn’t enjoying with the high-priced players."

When given a chance to become the full-time trainer at PLU, where he had worked from 1973 through 1982 during the baseball off-season, Nicholson jumped at the opportunity.

In addition to doing the hands-on work of an athletic trainer, Nicholson started an athletic training specialization. Though the specialization no longer exists, the victim of the squeeze between National Athletic Trainers Association regulations and the school’s budget, 51 students graduated from the program. Many of those graduates work in college or high school athletic departments. Devin Dice ’89 works on the professional rodeo tour. One graduate who stayed close to home is Jen (Thompson ’98 ’99) Thomas, now assistant athletic director and assistant athletic trainer at PLU. She has been associated with Nicholson for nine years, first as a student, now as his assistant.

"He helped foster my interest in athletic training as a potential career," says Thomas. "I really enjoyed the injury prevention class that he was teaching." That led to her working in the athletic training room starting as a sophomore. Other than a brief time at Puyallup High School, Thomas has been a fixture at PLU. "We had one of the best programs in the conference in terms of being able to have hands-on experience and have him help us," says Thomas. "We were allowed to actually experience doing things and figure it out along the way, and Gary was there with guidance."

Nicholson also started a weekly sports medicine clinic in 1973, with doctors evaluating student athletes and their injuries. The doctors help at PLU football games and at other championship events as needed. The program started with Dr. Stan Mueller, Dr. Dale Hirz, Dr. Art Ozolin and Dr. Wouter Bousch. In the intervening years, Dr. Steve Teeny and Dr. Peter Krumins have stepped in.

Hoseth says Nicholson’s role goes well beyond his title. "Beyond the expected work of athletic trainer and teacher, Gary is constantly looking for ways to help make this place better. No task is too small. My greatest fear is that at some point Gary will retire. His contributions, on many fronts and for decades, have been immeasurable."

While Nicholson has given a lot to PLU, he appreciates what he gets in return.

"In the college setting, you influence kids more than you do in the pros. A lot of these players will come back and see you at alumni games or Homecoming, or they may phone or email wanting information about something," says Nicholson. "You would not see that in professional sports. Part of you goes with the student when they leave."

By Nick Dawson

Winter 2003 Scene Copyright © 2003 Pacific Lutheran University
Credits ~ Last Updated 12-11-2002 ~ Comments