Q&A with John Lopez

January 29, 2015
Coppin State University
John Lopez, LAT, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer at Coppin State University, is no stranger to awards. As the Chair of the NATA Service Award Subcommittee and a member of the NATA Hall of Fame Subcommittee, he helps hand them out to fellow athletic trainers. He is also the Co-founder and President and Board Member Emeritus of the NFL's Ed Block Courage Award Foundation.

But Lopez has a habit of receiving awards himself as well. In 1988, he received the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) Outstanding Alumni award. Eleven years later, he was given the NATA Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer award. Then in 2005, he was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Trainers' Association (MATA) Hall of Fame. Last year, the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Trainers' Association Hall of Fame came calling. And in June, he picked up the profession's highest honor when he was enshrined in the NATA Hall of Fame.

Lopez got his start in athletic training as the Head Athletic Trainer at Tampa Catholic High School in the mid-60s, while still a student at the University of Tampa. In 1969, he was hired by the university to work with the football team, a position he held until the program was dropped in 1975. Having successfully worked at the high school and college levels, Lopez moved on to the professional ranks next. He worked in the NFL from 1976 to 1984, first for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then for the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts.

Lopez returned to Maryland in 1984, where he co-founded the Towson Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center, serving as its director for 19 years. Following a short stint in medical sales, he returned to athletic training in August of 2011 at Coppin State. In this interview, Lopez talks about why he left the NFL, his time at Towson Sports Medicine, and the serendipitous way he wound up at Coppin State.

T&C: What was your reaction to being inducted into the NATA Hall of Fame?
Lopez: I thought the NATA had called the wrong person. The enormity of it didn't hit me until I got to the annual meeting and started preparing for the ceremony. That was a very emotional time.

The remarkable thing about the experience for me was the number of people--many of whom I didn't have a relationship with--who shook my hand and told me they were excited for me and that I deserved it. During my career, I've done things that I believed to be important and that needed to be done, but when people told me they respected me for it, it blew me away. I have a tendency to be outspoken, but I didn't realize the impact of the things I said or did until then.

You originally wanted to be a coach. How did you get into athletic training?
I was hired by Tampa Catholic as an athletic trainer, an offensive line coach for the junior varsity football team, and a scout for the varsity team. Back then, I wanted to be a coach first and athletic trainer second, but the school's athletic director and head football coach felt the opposite.

At the time, I was going through school at Tampa as an athletic training student, and it quickly became apparent to me how much I didn't know about the profession. So I called the athletic trainer from my high school and several others from local colleges for advice. In talking with them I began to see how important this work was, and it drove me to study harder and make athletic training my full-time job.

Why did you leave professional football?
I loved working at the professional level, especially early on. But over the years, how seriously the teams took their off-season work began to wear on me. When I was hired by the Baltimore Colts in 1979, many athletic trainers worked on a seasonal basis. So even though you might work 100-hour weeks during the season, you still had time to recharge your batteries in the off-season. By the mid-80s, that had started to change, and I felt time slipping away from me.

Other factors contributed as well. I was disillusioned by the pressure medical staffs felt from player agents, who questioned treatments and often asked for second opinions. And the way the move from Baltimore to Indianapolis transpired was challenging for me.

What drove you to start Towson Sports Medicine?
When I was working for the Colts, the team physician and I kept wondering why we couldn't transform the athletic training room model into a private practice setting. Back in 1984, Baltimore had two sports medicine centers, but they were not run in the athletic training room style. So we took the concept and turned it into what is now known as the physician extender model, where athletic trainers were working with doctors, taking patient histories, and ordering x-rays, all while communicating with players, their parents, and their coaches.

You taught a basic sports medicine course to high school coaches for almost 30 years. How did you get started as an instructor?
I began teaching that course to students at Tampa in the early- to mid-70s. Not long after, high school coaches started approaching me about attending the class. Unfortunately, their schedules didn't allow it. So I started teaching them the basic principles on nights and weekends.

By 1984, I was in the clinical setting and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association was developing a course for high school coaches. It was obvious to me that coaches needed the training, and it was an easy move from an informal to more structured curriculum. I taught that course from 1985 to 2003 and think it was incredibly valuable.

Why do you feel committee work is important?
One of the things I learned from my mentors is that an athletic trainer should try to make the profession better for those who follow them. If you don't do that then I think you have to ask yourself what you truly accomplished during your career. Getting involved at the local and national levels allows you to work for the things that can make the field better.

How did you end up involved with the Ed Block Courage Award?
Eddie Block had a profound impact on a number of athletic trainers working today, myself included, through his work as an athletic trainer for the Colts and as a physical therapist at a Baltimore hospital. He felt it was extremely important to work with and help children, and the community began presenting the Courage Award to a Colts player in his honor in 1978. When I returned to Baltimore in 1984, there was some worry about what to do with the award, since the Colts had left. I couldn't let the award disappear, so I went to the PFATS to see if we could take it to the national level. Now the award is given to one player from each NFL team every year who exhibits inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage.

What prompted your return to athletic training?
It was an accidental situation, honestly. The economy tanked not long after I tried my hand at medical sales. At that time, the athletic director at Coppin State was looking to change the culture of the program and add an assistant athletic trainer to the staff so the head athletic trainer wouldn't get burnt out. He and I have some mutual friends and he contacted me for suggestions, but no one was the right fit.

Finally, after a few months of trying, I half-jokingly said to him, "If you're so set on hiring another athletic trainer, why don't you hire me?" He said, "Okay, you've got the job. Come work for us." Not long after that, the head athletic trainer decided to quit, and I moved into that role. I came here with no intention of being the Director of Sports Medicine and handling administrative duties. But it fell to me, and I'm having more fun now than I ever have. It was like putting on an old pair of gloves--very comfortable.