They Call Him Dr. Jimmy, and for 30-Plus Years He's Helped Take Care of Crimson Tide Athletes
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They were sick. Not just football players and staff workers, but administrators, boosters and family members alike.
When Alabama played Texas in the Rose Bowl for the 2009 national championship, it was considered a turning point for not just the football program, but school as well. The first of Nick Saban’s five national titles with the Crimson Tide was played in a picturesque setting and ended with players kissing the crystal football, but the behind the scenes were anything but tranquil.
Team physician Dr. Jimmy Robinson was the Crimson Tide’s only medical person on hand for the entire bowl week in the Los Angeles area. His phone was constantly buzzing from people needing help.
“I think I treated at least one member of every family that traveled with us,” he said. “There was a cold virus going around, there was a flu and then there was a stomach bug. And the stomach bug was the worst part.
“I remember the night before the game I had two players getting IVs. I set them up in their hotel rooms, hung them from the floor lamps with a coat hanger and would get up every couple of hours and check them and change the bag out.”
One of them was star linebacker Rolando McClain, who had just won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker (the other was reserve defensive back Rod Woodson). Not only did he have IVs the day before facing the Longhorns, but before kickoff, at halftime and even after the game.
You never would have known anything was bothering him during the Crimson Tide’s 37-21 victory.
That kind of situation gives Robinson the most satisfaction, when he’s able to do something that allows an athlete to compete when they otherwise could not, and then has success.
The winning is pretty cool too.
“This ride that we’ve had of success has been fun,” Robinson said. “It’s a little bit more pressure. Taking care of Alabama is really almost like taking care of a professional team from a medical standpoint.
“He wants it run like that, and I understand that.”
Over the years, Robinson’s seen a lot of athletes come and go, but he’s always been a key cog in the athletic department.
Specifically, the man affectionately known as “Dr. Jimmy” is the Endowed Chair of Sports Medicine for the College of Community Health Sciences, and head team physician for the athletic department. Robinson’s also the director of the Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship Program, which is teaching the next wave in his field.
However, a big part of his story is simply right place, right time.
Originally from New Orleans, Robinson got both his undergraduate and medical degree at LSU. He arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1985 as a resident physician in the family practice program. One of the electives was with Alabama athletics, and his rooting loyalties quickly began to change.
“I was an obnoxious LSU fan,” he said. “It’s funny, nowadays I’d rather us beat LSU than Auburn – for bragging rights. It’s a bigger game for me.”
There were days Robinson was on campus from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., even though he was supposed to be part of a six-person rotation.
In reality, Robinson was the rotation.
Football was in the early mix, but he spent more time with the sports that competed in what’s now called Coleman Coliseum. When gymnastics reached the NCAA Championships in 1988, Sarah Patterson asked if she could bring a doctor along to Salt Lake City, so off he went.
“So I’m technically the only person still at the University of Alabama who’s been to all six gymnastics championships,” Robinson said with a laugh (the others were 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011 and 2012).
His residency completed, Robinson headed to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for a fellowship and was looking at maybe heading to East Carolina when Alabama called with an opening. He needed about a nano-second to say yes.
Robinson returned and opened his private practice. He hasn’t missed a football game, home or away, since 1996.
Nowadays, he’s never alone on the sideline. For a typical game Alabama will have head trainer Jeff Allen and his staff plus Robinson, and then at least two doctors from Andrews Sports Medicine in Birmingham on hand.
Dr. Lyle Cain, one of the foremost orthopaedic sports medicine surgeons in the world, will often be involved in any decisions regarding knee injuries, while Dr. Norman Waldrop does likewise with foot and ankle issues. Occasionally one will also see Dr. James Andrews, considered patriarch of modern sports medicine.
It’s an all-star lineup, one that every school would like to have, and works to the Crimson Tide’s advantage both in dealing with injuries and recruiting.
“We probably have the best medical staff and the best medical group of people,” Saban said. “Dr. Andrews, Dr. Cain, their whole group of people over there have done a phenomenal job with so many players.
“I guess it's a little bit like having insurance. It doesn't matter what kind of insurance you have until you have to make a claim. But these guys are fabulous and when we get guys hurt, man they do a great job with them.”
To give an idea of the level of trust Saban has with the medical team, the hip specialist at Andrews Sports Medicine, Dr. Benton Emblom, performed his replacement surgery.
But none of them are based in Tuscaloosa, while Robinson’s newest office is just up the street. Over the years he’s decorated it with sports paraphernalia, with each treatment room having a theme based on which photo covers an entire wall.
In the football room, patients have found themselves in the giant shot of Bryant-Denny Stadium and signed it. There’s also the Olympic room after he was a doctor for Team USA during the 2000 Games in Sydney Australia, the gymnastics room and the basketball room.
For years one has featured the picture of Antoine Pettway hitting the shot to beat Florida for the 2002 SEC regular-season title. In the background there’s former Crimson Tide football players Barrett, Harrison and Walker Jones as kids, all beginning to jump up in celebration beside their parents.
“Erwin Dudley and Pettway both signed it, but so did everyone in the Jones family over the years,” Robinson said. “The last one to do so was the mother.
“That was pretty funny.”
The game still stands out to Robinson, who was working it on the bench, but nothing quite like that 2009 national title. He’s usually busy during games, only that one was obviously different.
“I think we were on the plane ride the next day when I went, ‘Wow. We just won the national championship,’” Robinson said.
As for what he did to celebrate, there really was only one thing: “I think I went to sleep.”