Like so many young athletes, Fred Mathis had aspirations of becoming a star basketball player. But in his home town of Barnesville, Ga., his uncle, Theodore Bush, was the athletic director and coach of the high school football and basketball teams and was in desperate need of someone to handle the trainer duties.
"He looked at me and suddenly I was doing all the taping, working on minor injuries, etc.," Mathis said. "I was just in the fifth grade and wanted to be around athletics, so I started helping him. In those small cities, the coach has to do everything. When I got to high school, I was on the basketball team but was still in charge of taping. I played and taped my teammates."
Mathis, who said he had no desire to coach ("a person must know his limitations"), continued his work as a trainer in college before undertaking extensive courses in sports medicine. He worked at several colleges before coming to the District in 1960.
"Athletics was important to me. I enjoyed working with the players so I became a trainer," said Mathis, who said he is "fortyish." "Most coaches will tell you a trainer is very important to any team. The players sure will let you know who's important."
Mathis, who began working as a substitute teacher here in 1961, has served as a trainer with the Interhigh League schools for more than 20 years.
"And have never received a dime, I might add," said Mathis, who teaches psychology and history at Ballou. "I wish I had a dollar for every award I've received. I'd be rich. But I don't mind, I enjoy working with the kids."
Mathis has spent as much time in the classroom as he has on athletic facilities. He has undergraduate degrees from D.C. Teachers College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and Morehouse (Ga.), took graduate studies at George Washington and Howard and did doctoral work in administration. Mathis received his sports medical training at the University of Virginia.
"Having a degree in physical education went hand in hand with sports medicine," Mathis said. "A lot of coaches in the schools knew of my background and asked me to assist at their schools."
In addition to his unpaid duties with the District schools, Mathis is the full-time trainer at Bowie State College and for the Urban Coalition summer basketball league.
"Every Friday afternoon and evening I'm usually at an Interhigh game somewhere," he said. "Hopefully, no one needs my services. Once, a player suffered a slight fracture in his neck. That was scary. Even the doctors present ask me about the kids. I know so many of them and can advise the doctor about his injury.
"I feel I'm qualified to handle most emergencies. If I can't, I certainly know what steps to take to see to it that the athletes receive the best care," he said. "All of the schools should have full-time trainers. Students should also be be utilized as trainers."
Theodore Roosevelt's football coach, Jim Tillerson, said Mathis' services are invaluable.
"It's hard to find guys like him," Tillerson said. "We could at least find a way to give him gas money for his time. He periodically comes by sometimes during practices to help out. He always takes care of the players' injuries and sees to it they are taped properly."
Called "Doc" by most coaches and players, Mathis still attends as many workshops and trainer seminars as his busy schedule allows. "You have to stay abreast of the modern trends and new methods," he said.
Mathis, an immaculate dresser who is very serious about his duties, can usually be spotted along the sideline without any trouble. On sunny days, he is often decked out in white, blue or another bright-color suit. Last Friday was rainy and overcast but Mathis still prepared for his game(s).
"I think I'll go past McKinley this afternoon and catch Roosevelt tonight," he said. "There's always somewhere to go."