By: Christy Effendie
Athletics Communications Assistant
The best-dressed person at football practice is a man who grew up with a gross family income of less than three thousand dollars a year; but by the time he was in third grade, he had already attended nearly 95 percent of a nursing school program.
Two decades later, Dr. Jeremiah Ray is now the head team physician for all 23 intercollegiate athletic teams at UC Davis.
His office, filled with model joint structures, rolling doctor chairs, and Peet's coffee, features a large window looking into the training room in the Pavilion. His day is filled with clinics, biking to various practices and keeping over 750 UC Davis student-athletes safe and healthy.
When he's not at addressing various illnesses or running concussion protocol, he is running out onto the field to assess acute injuries.
However, when an injury is more severe, behind closed doors and away from peering eyes, the rapport he has established with student-athletes becomes more imperative.
"The first thing I make it a point to do is express respect for the athlete and respect for what their opinions and goals are. Some athletes are interested in being as functional as possible at age 60, others have told me they would rather cut a finger off and play the rest of the season than sit out a game. So what we do is lay out the objective evidence and I clearly make my recommendations and the strength of my recommendations," said Ray.
Understanding the mentality of collegiate athletes is not new territory for Dr. Ray. He was the former captain of the Occidental College men's soccer team and finished 2003 as the 14th overall ranked snowboarder in the nation by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Yet his love for athletics and the physiology behind it developed much earlier.
"My passion as a kid was playing soccer and so just the idea of how the heart pumped the blood, how lungs exchange gases and how muscle was made of sarcomere subunits really fascinated me. So right around third grade, I felt like sports medicine was a good fit for me. From then on I worked towards that goal."
The fundamentals of physiology, something most medical students are not taught until they take upper division classes while pursuing an undergraduate degree, Dr. Ray had already been exposed to by the age of eight.
"My dad would work all day and put himself through community college at night to become a nurse because there were not a lot of employment opportunities living up in rural California. And we didn't have a babysitter, so he would just take me to night school with him. I actually attended about 90 to 95 percent of an entire nursing program from about first grade to third grade."
At that point in his life, he already had a goal in mind.
"I remember my dad saying, `Whatever you do, make sure you go to college, get a degree and get whatever the highest level of degree is for your passion, whether it's a masters degree, a Ph.D. or a M.D.'"
From there, Dr. Ray left Pioneer, California, to begin his extensive resume. After studying biochemistry at Occidental College, he was accepted to Stanford University School of Medicine and received an M.D. as a clinical research scholar in 2010. He then turned to emergency medicine for his residency at the University of Utah.
"I returned to the jack-of-all-trades in medicine," he said with a wide grin on his face.
After a two-year detour spent in Tacoma, Washington, to take care of sick relatives, Dr. Ray returned to Utah and spent a year as a musculoskeletal ultrasound fellow before moving to Stanford for a sports medicine fellowship in 2016. There, he cared for members of the San Francisco 49ers, Golden State Warriors and various Olympians, in addition to Stanford's student-athletes.
Now his days are devoted to the young men and women who represent the No. 6-ranked public school in the nation.
Dr. Ray is the third full-time team physician employed by UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics. The first, Dr. David Cosca, oversaw the sports medicine program during the transition to Division I athletics in 2007. After his retirement in 2015, Dr. Melita Moore stepped in and kick-started many of the sports medicine projects in effect today.
"Now I get to bring in my own ideas and my own enthusiasm," he adds.
Since arriving to Davis on July 1, 2017, Dr. Ray has already implemented three major additions to the program this year.
The first integrates a urine specific gravity algorithm to detect and manage the health of student-athletes affected by the sickle cell trait, a genetic allele that can cause death due to dehydration.
The sports medicine program is also moving forward with having all physical examinations on campus and conducted by a board certified sports medicine doctor, which has never occurred before at UC Davis.
Third, the program is instituting pre-participation electrocardiograms.
"Sudden cardiac death in student-athletes is a real issue nationwide. A Division I men's basketball athlete, particularly of African descent, is more likely to die of sudden cardiac death on the court than they are in a motor vehicle collision. That is just absolutely insane. So we need to do everything in our power to keep these kids safe, happy, and doing the things that they love."
Starting in December, UC Davis Medical Center residents will rotate, and participate in the first elective for college sports medicine. It will later evolve into a full-time fellowship, training physicians to become the next generation of cutting-edge sports medicine doctors.
In five-to-10 years, though, he envisions something much greater - a sports medicine institute. Not just a sports doctor checking in, checking out and calling it a day.
Dr. Ray's goal is to have undergraduate and graduate programs involved in sports medicine, conducting research, executing high-quality studies and publishing data. He wants people at UCLA, Stanford and UC Berkeley quoting literature derived from the sports medicine institute on how Davis is getting concussions asymptomatic in seven instead of 10 days, or how UC Davis is able to grade hamstring strains based on their ultrasounding abilities, which will allow student-athletes to return to competition in a more timely manner.
"I think that once we become recognized as a research powerhouse in sports medicine, that will give us the opportunity to educate the West Coast, the country and the world on the best sports medicine practices. I think that will have direct benefits to our athletes, and the university as a whole," he added.
As excited as Dr. Ray is about these plans, he recognizes he cannot execute everything alone.
"My biggest strength is recognizing my own limitations and understanding how important it is to have people around me that are masters and working really hard. I know that I can't do it myself, and that I need the support of my amazing wife and support of my team.
"I'm here to be a medical doctor and I rely on the strengths of athletic trainers, physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches to do everything that is within their craft. I practice medicine, and they bring crucial components of sports medicine to the table."
His lofty goals and humility fit right in with UC Davis' culture, just like his demeanor when student-athletes find Dr. Ray biking to football practice in a suit.