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
Trainer Gary Nicholson works with PLU football player Chris Linderman.
Nicholson, PLUs longtime athletic trainer, has been taping ankles and
setting broken bonesand teaching how to tape ankles and set broken bonessince
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 teams athletic trainer, which
the school didnt 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 masters degree in athletic
training. At Indiana he worked with a Rose Bowl football team, a top-ranked
mens soccer team, and a swimming team that included seven-time Olympic
gold medalist Mark Spitz.
After graduation, Nicholsons connection with the Chicago Cubs paid
off in a position with the teams 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 Chicagos 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 "Its 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 Leagues 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 Garys 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 werent able to be involved
in their activities," he says. Besides, "baseball was changing and
going a direction I wasnt 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 schools 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
Hoseth says Nicholsons 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."