Written by: Isabel Pease, North Florida Marketing & Publications | Photos by: Rick Wilson, Jacksonville Jaguars
UNF alumni working in professional sports share their passion for athletics, their love for the job and the key ingredients to success in the field — building trust and making sure athletes know just how much they really care.
Jason Biles, Houston Rockets
As head athletic trainer and director of athlete care and science for the Houston Rockets, Jason Biles, ‘00, ‘02, believes his job is about more than just treating and preventing injuries. It is about using strategies to have a positive impact on the whole athlete — to treat mind, body and spirit and to add value to their lives.
And there is no doubt that Biles is having an impact. In October 2018, he was named the Joe O’Toole Head Athletic Trainer of the Year for outstanding service to the NBA, the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association and the community.
“Professional athletes are pulled in a million directions. They don’t want a transactional relationship. They need to know you are interested in their whole being; then the door will be open.”
Biles played baseball and football in high school and he ran track. He first became interested in athletic training and physical therapy following a quad injury his junior year. “I realized the value of the profession then,” said Biles, who appreciated learning about various strategies to recovery and enjoyed seeing the progress.
Today, Biles’ number one goal as an athletic trainer is to make sure athletes know how much he cares about them. He often points to the quote, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” which has been attributed to many over the years including Teddy Roosevelt and author John Maxwell. Biles says nothing describes his job better. And while most athletic trainers would agree that the sentiment is fundamental on every level, it especially holds true in professional sports. “Professional athletes are pulled in a million directions. They don’t want a transactional relationship,” he said. “They need to know you are interested in their whole being; then the door will be open.”
Biles worked extensively in clinical settings before joining the NBA in 2007 as an assistant athletic trainer and head strength and conditioning coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. There he worked with another Osprey in the field, Jim Scholler, who just happened to be the best man in his wedding!
Jim Scholler, Detroit Pistons
In August, Jim Scholler, ’01, began his first season as head athletic trainer for the Detroit Pistons. While the team may be new for Scholler, the position is not. Scholler served as head athletic trainer for the Memphis Grizzlies, where he began his career with the NBA starting as an assistant athletic trainer and assistant strength and conditioning coach in 2008.
He began working in the profession at the University of North Florida, first serving as a graduate assistant athletic trainer while working on his master’s in health administration, and later as the University’s head athletic trainer. He also worked at the University of Notre Dame and for the Greek National Baseball team.
Like Jason Biles and many others in the field, Scholler played sports in high school and was first exposed to athletic training after getting injured playing basketball. “I understood what they were doing and why, and there was a strong interest there,” said Scholler.
Now at the top of his game in professional sports, Scholler is still grateful to be in a position to help players every day. There is no doubt that NBA careers are rigorous – not just for athletes but for staff as well. Apart from training and day-to-day operations, there are 82 games in a regular NBA season. That does not include pre- or post-season games. Game day alone starts very early and ends very late. Half of the games are on the road. “You have to love what you do to work at this level,” said Scholler. And it is obvious that he does. “Each day the job is dynamic and incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Scholler said building trust and a strong rapport with players is critical, and one of the most important elements of being successful in the profession. “These [professional] athletes have small circles of people they trust,” said Scholler. “Gaining that trust means a great deal. You need to always have the best interest of the athletes and their careers in mind,” said Scholler, commenting that the players are grateful for that.
“It is rewarding when you return a guy to play, and he stays healthy,” he said. “There is an end game. As an athletic trainer, you are a part of their success.”
Robby Hoenshel, Jacksonville Jaguars
While “dream jobs” vary significantly for athletic trainers from clinical work to team sports, Robby Hoenshel, ’00, ’02, admits that he is certainly living his, not only working for a professional franchise, but also in his hometown of Jacksonville.
Like many others in the field, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ associate athletic trainer and physical therapist was exposed to the profession while playing high school sports, but his real experience began much earlier.
Hoenshel’s younger brother has cerebral palsy, and growing up, he assisted him often with movement and special exercises. “I did a lot of physical therapy with him when I was younger — probably as young as 6 years old,” Hoenshel said.
Drawn to helping others and a lifelong sports enthusiast, Hoenshel said the field of athletic training really spoke to him. “The industry of helping people always intrigued me very much, and I loved playing sports,” he said. “Athletic training seemed like a natural fit for me.”
After college, Hoenshel worked for 10 years in a clinic in Jacksonville and later transitioned into professional sports working for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets for four seasons before securing a position with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015.
Mickey Kozack, Philadelphia Phillies, Fightin Phils
Mickey Kozack, ’03, ’05, is beginning his 14th season as a full-time athletic trainer for the Philadelphia Phillies Baseball Professional Organization. The organization is broad, and over his career, the respected athletic trainer has worked with five of its minor league affiliates, the last two years as athletic trainer for the Reading Fightin Phils. In August, Kozack was honored as the 2018 Minor League Baseball Athletic Trainer of the Year for the Eastern League.
In addition to his certification as an athletic trainer, Kozack is a certified health education specialist. He has always enjoyed sharing his knowledge with others on how to maintain a high level of health and fitness. Even as a graduate assistant at UNF in the mid-2000s, Kozack was developing and implementing health education programs for students.
Now, more than a decade later as a seasoned athletic trainer in professional sports, Kozack remains passionate about educating and helping athletes understand not only the importance, but the reasoning behind rehab and injury prevention. He said the young athletes are so motivated to get better it keeps him on his toes.
“I really enjoy that I am constantly learning and constantly being challenged,” Kozack said. “I had a great experience at UNF and received a good foundation working there. And when you are in the industry, you continue to learn every step of the way.”
Working as an athletic trainer is incredibly gratifying for Kozack. “Every single day, we are developing strategies to make athletes stronger and improve their well-being – both on the field and in their daily lives,” he said. “It is important to me that they understand what we are doing and why we are doing it ... and that they know we care.”
Dave Pearson, New York Mets
Dave Pearson, ‘98, ‘02, has worked for the New York Mets organization for nearly a decade. Currently serving as the physical therapy and rehabilitation coordinator at the Mets Rehabilitation Facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Pearson works every day with minor and major league athletes who are trying to get back in the game. Some have long roads ahead.
Pearson said the athletes that come to Florida often have career-threatening injuries. The majority have excelled in sports since childhood, and in many cases, are seriously injured for the first time in their lives.
A few years ago, inspired by the hard work put in by many of the athletes undergoing treatment, Pearson decided he needed a way to recognize them when their rehab was over. “We would say goodbye to athletes who had worked so hard,” Pearson said. “We would give them a handshake and that was it.” Many had months of grueling physical therapy, and he felt they deserved something to show for it. Remembering a military coin that a patient had once given him, Pearson designed a Challenge Coin as a special commendation for those who had worked especially hard. Not everyone gets one, and there are a few versions now. One even pokes fun at the tough months of rehab with the words “Best Summer Ever.”
Pearson said the players are eager to get better, and there are big consequences to decisions that are made. However, his number one goal is to make sound medical decisions that are in the best interest of the athletes and their futures. “Regardless of whether they are able to return to play or not, if I see them on the street, I want to know that I did the right thing for them and the right thing professionally,” Pearson said.
He said the internships each semester at UNF — for Osprey teams, high schools and a local ice hockey team — provided valuable experience that helped him see a variety of injuries and prepared him for the future.
Athletic Training at UNF
In 2018, the athletic training program at UNF transitioned from an undergraduate degree program to a graduate degree program offering a Master of Science in Athletic Training. The move was a result of a national standard developed by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education.
Time will tell what impact the change will have on the industry, but the demand for athletic trainers continues to rise. According to the Department of Labor, the employment of athletic trainers is projected to grow 21 percent from 2014 to 2024. Like current students at the University of North Florida, alumni working in professional sports had numerous internships and opportunities to gain a wide variety of experience in the field while at UNF, and they remain devoted Ospreys.
Michelle Boling, director of athletic training at UNF, believes the University will continue to turn out sought-after athletic trainers who are ready to work and graduate with valuable clinical experience in a variety of settings. “We have veteran faculty members here at UNF who have rich backgrounds and are strongly rooted in the profession,” Boling said. “They are experts in the field and well connected, which has helped provide great opportunities for our students all over the country.”
According to Boling, those who have completed the program seem to stay in touch – with each other and with UNF faculty. “Our students tend to build strong relationships in the program, and together we all love to celebrate their successes.”