JACKSONVILLE — Jim Skidmore is about to retire after 40 years of treating joints, muscles and souls as Jacksonville State’s head athletic trainer, and oh, the things he could tell.
And it would be fun to hear what the man with a “No whining” sign over his office door would say.
Well, he can’t tell all. Like so many athletic trainers, he treats his office as something akin to a Catholic confessional. Or Las Vegas. What goes on in there stays in there.
But his time has covered multiple eras of JSU sports and sports personalities. He also spans eras of his profession, from the days of salt tablets to today’s heightened awareness of concussions.
Skidmore’s last official day on the job comes in July, but he’s accumulated vacation time. This week will be his final full week manning the head trainer’s office on the lower level of the JSU Stadium field house. What a waste it would be not to let him spill what he will about people, his professional and his special take on JSU’s Ohio Valley Conference rivalry with his alma mater, Eastern Kentucky.
Oh, and who knew Skidmore was part of history in the development of Gatorade. There are reasons it’s not in the history books, but more on that later.
It’s time to let the man who became JSU’s first full-time athletic trainer in 1974 and was inducted in the Alabama Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame in 2009 bid farewell after decades of Gamecocks hellos.
“I’ve been very blessed being at Jacksonville State,” the 62-year-old Skidmore said. “I don’t think there’s any place else on the planet that would be better for me, and because of the people at Jacksonville State — the Burgesses, the Joneses, the Cases and the Abbotts, the McGinnises and all of the really great kids who have come through here, who just happened to be good players in their respective sports.
“My most favorite thing now, without a doubt, is when our kids come home, and the overwhelming majority of them have done really well in life. You’ve got to be proud of them.”
Signs of the times
Skidmore said his line of work has “changed a lot,” and he sees encouragement in today’s heightened awareness of player safety. He’s also been around long enough to believe what he sees.
“I hope all the people aren’t just paying lip service to this and are serious about making this more student-athlete-health-friendly,” he said. “I was talking to an old ball coach this past weekend. I don’t know how we didn’t kill folks back then.”
He remembers well when head gear was “terrible” and he made the rounds at pregame meals, handing out salt tablets based on his sense of how many each player needed. Bigger players needed more.
When he was a student trainer at Eastern Kentucky, a football player whose mother was a nurse kept a bottle of Darvon pills in his locker. Teammates would come by and “self-medicate” on the pain medication, Skidmore said.
The maker Darvon pulled the drug off the market in 2010, because of pressure from public health officials who said it caused potentially deadly heart rhythms.
“Everybody at EKU wanted to take care of the kids,” he said. “They just didn’t know better. We’ve learned a few things along the way.”
His position on lawsuits against the NFL over concussions and pain medication is evolving, but he understands why the heightened awareness about concussions.
“Bigger, faster, stronger makes bigger wrecks,” he said.
No matter how bigger, faster and stronger athletes become, the human brain remains a floating life center, sloshing back and forth and slamming into the skull at sudden, violent momentum stoppages.
“I’m about to be to the point where a 14-year-old-and-under shouldn’t play tackle football,” he said.
But concussions are not just a football issue. Skidmore recalled a recent school year where concussions affected JSU athletes in every sport but women’s tennis. Not all concussions were sports-related, but they happened up and down the JSU sports menu.
So heightened awareness is good, but Skidmore said fundamentals of concussions and treatment haven’t changed. In fact, he had a protocol before there was ever a movement to put one in black and white.
He’s not the biggest fan of scans. Such scans don’t reveal the typically mild concussions he encounters, so the radiation involved amounts to “cooking their brains” for nothing.
“I feel the education of people, it’s just about learning to take care of this,” he said. “There are people talking about how they want to make this science of concussion really complex, but it’s not that difficult. It’s really simple. Just take care of the kids.
“These are the symptoms. When they have these symptoms, you know, honor those symptoms. You don’t put them back into play until their symptoms have been gone for a period of time. The longer that you’ve had symptoms, the longer you have to wait.”
Concussion victims go through extensive stress tests before the symptom-free clock begins and they’re allowed back in competition. Most concussion-related issues mend with time.
The calculation is different, however, for players who have had multiple concussions.
“On average, it’s been one in every two years where we’ve stopped a student-athlete from participating,” Skidmore said. “Because when is enough enough? When do you have enough concussions?
“I don’t want to be a part of, down the road, some kid coming back and saying, ‘You let me have too many concussions. I’m having issues now.’”
Getting to know you
It’s hard to imagine a Gamecock with a grievance against Skidmore.
“I bleed for the man,” former JSU football great Keith Martin said in a recent interview.
Trainers don’t just treat athletes at times of physical vulnerability. Because of the confessional approach to training offices, players and even coaches also bring them emotional vulnerabilities.
“Often time, they just want to come in and get it off of their chest,” he said. “They’re mad at a coach, mad at a teammate, mad at a teacher, mad at themselves. They come in here and unload.
“I think sometimes — and it’s the same with our coaches — I’m the granny here, I guess. I’ve got that term.”
It’s put Skidmore in a position to get to know JSU sports personalities very well. How well?
Legendary JSU baseball coach Rudy Abbott once popped in through an unlocked door adjoining hotel rooms. Skidmore and his then-wife were in bed, but Abbott needed something.
“It was one of the years we went to the World Series,” Skidmore said. “The whole time we had been there, he hadn’t locked that door. Just wandered in and out.
“My wife and I are in bed, probably naked, and Rudy comes strolling through the door. ‘How you all doing?’ he said. ‘You got any clean underwear left?’ He got my last pair of clean underwear and left.”
Skidmore once had his office directly under that of then-JSU athletics director Jerry Cole. From being downstairs, Skidmore learned to keep a wish list in his drawer.
“He had that parquet floor,” Skidmore said. “When Jerry would start tap dancing, I’d run upstairs and ask him for something. When he was in a good mood, he’s going to give it to you.”
Yes, Skidmore knew them all. He’s had sitdowns with every JSU president over his tenure. He and the current president, Dr. Bill Meehan, text each other.
Their conversations are candid because, if for no other reason, that’s Skidmore’s style.
“He told me a couple of times ago, when I was up there, ‘You’ve never left here that I didn’t know what you mean,’” Skidmore said. “Some people think that I’m a little gruff, but I let him know what I feel and my passion for this business.”
Skidmore also has a passion for many people who have passed through JSU’s athletics department.
Bill Burgess, the former football coach whose name is now on Burgess-Snow Field, “is one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever known, along with Rudy Abbott and (former men’s basketball coach) Bill Jones,” Skidmore said.
“The way they managed their players? The way they managed their programs? Intense. Bill Jones is probably the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around. Coach wanted to beat you, whether you were playing basketball, bowling or pitching pennies.”
Then there’s former JSU football coach Clarkie Mayfield, who was among 165 people killed in a fire in Northern Kentucky’s Beverly Hills Supper Club on May 28, 1977. He escaped the fire but went back in to save others.
“We talk a lot about — I’m talking guys like me, (Jim) Fuller, Joe Kines, Rudy, all of the old heads — about how our lives might be different today if Clarkie hadn’t gotten killed in that fire,” Skidmore said. “Our lives would be remarkably different if he didn’t go back in that supper club and try to help people and got killed.
“We talk about that with some frequency. I don’t know.”
Did you know?
We’ve all heard the story of how Gatorade was developed at the University of Florida, but Eastern Kentucky was also on the ground floor. Long-time Florida trainer J. Chris Patrick got his Master’s degree from EKU and was a trainer there during 1961-63.
So Gatorade also got tested at EKU.
“They used to bring tractor-trailer loads of bottles of Gatorade to Richmond,” Skidmore said.
At the time, the sports drink’s taste wasn’t as developed as its capacity for electrolyte replenishment. So, a certain freshman student trainer at EKU had a job.
“I don’t know how many bottles of Gatorade we poured down a storm drain, because nobody would drink it,” he said. “It tastes better now than it did then.”
Despite Skidmore’s history with EKU, he never answered momma’s call. He grew up about two hours from the Richmond campus but liked life at JSU so much that he never pursued an opening at his alma mater.
His real momma didn’t like it, either.
“I think she took that to her grave,” he said.
When JSU joined the OVC, Skidmore stopped sending money to an EKU fund-raising group. The two schools had become conference rivals, so how could he continue to support the rival?
The president of the group didn’t like it when Skidmore stopped sending money.
“He got really wise, and I got mad,” Skidmore said. “I said, ‘From now on, I’m going to do everything I can as an athletic trainer to beat your ass.’
“Last year, during the football game, I slipped off and went down and hid in that corner of that end zone. I felt like my heart was going to blow up. I was so excited during that game. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
He’ll be missed, miss a lot
It’s hard to imagine JSU athletics without Jim Skidmore. It’s hard for Jim Skidmore to imagine him without JSU athletics.
He isn’t going anywhere. He plans to still live on his 22 acres about seven miles from campus. He’ll attend games.
But after this week, he won’t be a part of the day-to-day life of the JSU athletics department, and it won’t be a part of his day-to-day life.
Skidmore said he’ll miss occasions like the JSU baseball team’s NCAA tournament selection show gathering Monday. He’ll miss people like JSU’s current baseball coach.
“I’m going to miss Jim Case,” Skidmore said. “He’s such a class guy. … I’m going to miss (JSU softball coach) Jana McGinnis. She’s a special person. She really is. And the kids are. Most of our kids are special, and I’ll miss the daily interaction.
“We’ve got about 20-25 student trainers, and some of them are like children or grandchildren to me. I’m going to miss them.”
Many of those student trainers attended a function for Skidmore after the Southeast Missouri football game this past fall, and he said the occasion “touched my heart.”
“A bug flew in my eye two or three times,” he said. “They got me wet. I’ve enjoyed it here.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.