Staff Photo: Christine Troyke James Williams is the head athletic trainer for Georgia Gwinnett College, which just finished it's first full year of competition.
Georgia native James Williams is the head athletic trainer at Georgia Gwinnett College, which just completed its first full season of athletic competition.
In this installment of "Getting to Know ...", Williams talks to staff writer Christine Troyke about a variety of topics, including working with Auburn's powerful swim and dive team, moving to Cleveland to take a job in the NFL and running his first half marathon this weekend in Boston.
CT: Where did you grow up?
JW: I grew up in north Georgia, in a little small town of Morganton. Blue Ridge is actually the county seat. Most people don't know where Morganton or Blue Ridge are.
CT: Which high school is that?
JW: Fannin County. That's where I grew up.
CT: Did you play sports in high school? At small schools they make you, right?
JW: (laughing) I played everything. I didn't play football until my junior year of high school, but I played football, basketball and baseball. And I actually ran cross country the first couple of years. I definitely wasn't the fastest guy on the team, that's for sure.
CT: Where did you go for college?
JW: I went to a small school, Piedmont College. I transferred after my sophomore year and went to University of Georgia and graduated from there in 2000.
CT: When you left for college, what was the plan?
JW: The plan was actually for me to go into athletic training. I had an idea that's what I wanted to do. I tore my ACL between my junior and senior year of high school. I rehabbed and I thought the medical side of it was a pretty neat deal, but wasn't sure that I wanted to be indoors all the time in a PT clinic. So I researched the athletic training profession and that's actually how I got to Piedmont. I got a brochure in high school that talked about an internship in athletic training at Piedmont. I did that for two years and loved it.
I transferred to the University of Georgia and finished there. I majored in exercise and sports science with an emphasis in athletic training.
CT: How difficult was it to get a job when you graduated?
JW: It was pretty difficult. When I graduated, I actually went on to grad school at Auburn. I was there for two years and worked swimming and diving there.
CT: So you probably know some of the kids that came out of here that ended up at Auburn, like Eric Shanteau.
JW: Yeah, definitely. I worked swimming and diving there ...
CT: That's a lot of work isn't it? They've got an excellent program.
JW: It is. It's amazing. It's a great program. We won two SEC championships and a national championship while I was there.
CT: What was the first job you took out of grad school?
JW: I actually stayed at Auburn. I was hired to be the head men's basketball athletic trainer. I did that for two years and then was an assistant with the football team in 2004. That was a fun year. That was the year Auburn went 13-0 and I say we got snubbed from the national championship game because USC and Oklahoma got to play. But 13-0 and went to the Sugar Bowl. That was a lot of fun and a big experience.
CT: What convinced you to move on from there?
JW: I decided I wanted to pursue being a head athletic trainer in football. I had applied for a couple of jobs and people said that I really needed to go to a smaller school and then I would get more of the Division I jobs. I took a job at Indiana State and was there as the head football athletic trainer. I was there for one year.
CT: Which season was that?
JW: That would have been the 2005 season. I went from 13-0 at Auburn to 0-11 at Indiana State that season.CT: Win or lose though, your job remains pretty much the same -- keep everybody healthy?
JW: That's our job. Keep athletes healthy, keep them on the field. Protect them from themselves, protect them from the coach. But at the end of the day, you want to see them succeed.
CT: It can't be easy to be the adult in every situation. You have to be the one to put your foot down.
JW: It's the coaches' job to win. If they don't win, you move on. So it is tough at times. You want to see them succeed and you get to be friends and colleagues with the coaches. But at the end of the day, you have to do what's best for the athlete to get them back out there. Whether that's in a week or a month or a year.
CT: Where did you go after Indiana State?
JW: I moved to Cleveland and was hired by the Browns. I worked four years in the NFL with the Browns from 2006 to 2010 and then came and did one year, the 2010 season, with the Falcons. So I did five years in the NFL.
CT: How did that opportunity come about? You had been in college so was the jump to the NFL in your thought process?
JW: No, never. In the profession of athletic training, they always say you need to do a summer internship or a season internship to get your name into the NFL. I had never done those things and it just turned out there was a lot of change that year in Cleveland. The head athletic trainer had been relieved of his duties and the first assistant had bumped up. There was a guy I knew that was an intern there. He called and said, "Would you be interested in doing something like this?" I was kind of thinking he was crazy, to begin with.
But I went and interviewed and they offered me the job. It was a lot of fun actually.
CT: Can you describe the major difference going from even a high level college program to the NFL?
JW: The biggest difference for me was the guys at that level, that's their job. We all view it as a game. We see what happens on Sunday. But Monday through Saturday is a job for those guys. As an athletic trainer, you are appreciated by them. Because the majority of them realize they can't do their job without you taking care of their bodies.
Even at a Division I college, there were several days when guys would get off the treatment table and just leave. Almost every day in the NFL, when a guy gets off the table, he gives you a thank you. And that goes a long way when you're grinding those long hours.
CT: Were you a Falcons fan growing up?
JW: Oh yeah. So that was a dream job to come back and work for the Falcons. I remember watching the Falcons with my dad on Sunday afternoons.
CT: From there, where did you go?
JW: I went to Sports Medicine South and worked for a year with Dr. (Gary) Levengood. I basically did patient evaluations, brace fittings, rehab programs whatever was deemed necessary.
CT: That's a pretty big departure from what you had been doing.
JW: It was. But I was ready for a change. I had just gotten married and my wife and I were looking for a little less stress. It got me on a Monday-through-Friday ritual and it was a good change.
But I also knew after I was there for about a year that it wasn't me. At heart, I'm a traditional athletic trainer in that I want to be on the field.
When this opportunity was presented (at GGC), I'm hired through Gwinnett Medical Center just like all the high school athletic trainers are. When it was presented to me that the hospital would hire me but I would be placed full time at GGC, I jumped at the opportunity.
It was something where I'm just trying to figure out where and when and what was going on. This has been a great opportunity. I love it here. We have a great staff. We have great coaches. Top to bottom, it's a good spot. And the growth here is crazy. It's just going to get bigger and better.
CT: At what point in the timeline of GGC athletics did you come on board?
JW: I started here last May, so almost a year now. Really the first couple of months for me was just trying to set up paper work. I did have some meetings about the training room and making sure we get physicals set, making sure we have coolers to put water in, making sure we have supplies if we need to tape people.
CT: I can't really conceive of how much stuff must go on in order to start a program from scratch. You're responsible for all that stuff.
JW: When I came here, we didn't have a Band-aid. We didn't have an Advil. I barely even had a desk. There was nothing. We didn't know where the training room was going to be. Somebody said maybe we'll just get you a room in the dorm.
Luckily for me, the backing of the hospital has been huge. The hospital helped us to get on our feet. A lot of the stuff that the Georgia Force had when they folded, I inherited.Now when we move into our new building, hopefully very soon, we've bought all new stuff.
It's been a really fun thing for me. Every instance I've ever been in, you walk into an established training room that's been there for five, 10, 50 years.
Now you walk into a setting at GGC where you don't even know where your training room is going to be. This has been something new for me. I really have enjoyed starting from scratch because it's not something most athletic trainers get to do.
CT: How many people work for/with you to take care of the athletes here?
JW: I have a graduate assistant, Shira Williams, and she actually goes to school online through the North Georgia athletic training program. She's absolutely fantastic. We have another guy, Andy Jarosz, that I've known for a few years that works PRN through the hospital and we're looking at the possibility of bringing him on fulltime. Which would be great because the three of us get along so well. The way I look at it, being the head athletic trainer, you're only as good as your staff. Because I can't do everything. Without those two, it couldn't be done.
CT: You guys are taking care of six teams at this point?
JW: Baseball, softball, men's and women's soccer and tennis. I think we're probably in the 100-120 athlete range. I haven't counted them all.
CT: Does the administration ever make you nervous talking about adding more teams?
JW: Nah. That's part of growth and part of getting bigger and better. We have a large pool of athletes to pull from in Gwinnett County so growth is part of being an athletic department.
If we ever go to university status, it will be huge for the athletic department in general, but it would be huge for us in the fact that we could hire athletic training graduate assistants and they could actually just go to school at Georgia Gwinnett. That would help us out a lot as well.
CT: I don't imagine you have a lot of free time, but if you do, how do you like to spend it?
JW: I work out. I like to run. My wife and I are going to run a half marathon this weekend. This is our first one we've ever done. We're actually going to Boston this weekend for a little vacation and to run a half marathon on Sunday. We're really looking forward to it obviously, after the Boston bombings. This one is called the Run to Remember and it's for the firemen and the policemen and others who died in the line of duty. So I think it's going to be a really cool thing. We're really excited about it.
I also like to play golf when I have the opportunity.
CT: How are you?
JW: (laughing) I'm very bad. I say I play at golf. I feel like I play chase the white ball.
And growing up in the mountains in Morganton, my parents live on about 10 acres up there and I like going back. My in-laws have a farm and my wife likes to ride horses. We're very outdoorsy people. Really just hanging out because there's not a lot of time to relax in this profession.