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As a former Boy Scout, Taft is still a doer of good deeds

Dr. Tim Taft, right, 2009 Massey Award winner, examines the leg of Carl Gaskin.
Dr. Tim Taft, right, 2009 Massey Award winner, examines the leg of Carl Gaskin.

TIMOTHY TAFT IS OLD ENOUGH to be a proud grandfather, but he remains unabashedly a Boy Scout at heart.

He knows the sacred oath he once recited as a boy in Missouri may seem outdated and quaint to some, a relic of simpler times. But they are also words he has tried hard to live by – in the same order as in the oath: “Duty to God and country. Duty to other people. And duty to self.”

Taft grew up knowing he wanted to be a doctor in the same way other boys dreamed of becoming cowboys or cops. But he never outgrew his boyhood dream; instead, he drew it into reality.

“The expectations were to do as well as you can,” Taft said of his mother, who was a schoolteacher, and his father, a traveling salesman. “I came from a generation where less than that was not accepted.”

His teachers, scoutmasters and coaches held him to that same standard. “You couldn’t be expected to run any faster than you could run, but you were expected to run that fast,” Taft said.

He ran well enough to become an Eagle Scout and earn the Boy Scouts scholarship that helped pay his way to Princeton University. After finishing second in his class in medical school at the University of Missouri, Taft came to Carolina in 1969 for his residency in orthopedic surgery.

And it was here, in 1971, that his career took an unexpected twist after Tar Heel football player Bill Arnold died following heat-related complications after a preseason practice.

Taft found himself on a committee created to look into the circumstances that led to Arnold’s death so that safeguards could be put in place to prevent a similar tragedy. The committee’s recommendations led in 1972 to the creation of the Carolina sports medicine program, where Taft remained at the center for the next four decades.

In 1993, he was named director of sports medicine, a position he held until he stepped down in July.

“Nobody is interested in winning games more than I am, but we have an overriding interest in the health and welfare of the athletes,” Taft said. “The known quality of our program has helped us recruit some of our high-profile athletes.”

Carolina’s sports medicine program was the first of its kind in the country. Today there still are universities in the Atlantic Coast Conference that do not have an organized sports medicine program.

Under Taft’s guiding hand, the program continued to expand services and programs to meet the health needs of the 800 athletes who participate in Carolina’s 28 sports teams as well as the entire student body.

The program now has a cadre of three primary care physicians, two orthopedists and a combination of nine athletic trainers and physical therapists. One of the athletic trainers is assigned exclusively to serve students involved in intramural or club sports.

In addition to attending to his other duties, Taft had not missed a home or an away game as the physician for the football team from 1972 until last month’s game with the University of Connecticut.

It is that kind of enduring commitment that led colleagues to nominate Taft for a 2009 C. Knox Massey Award.

Daniel Hooker, associate director of sports medicine, said Taft’s leadership was responsible not only for growing the program into a place of national prominence, but also for showing by example that each patient can be given compassionate care.

Frank Wilson, Kenan professor of orthopedics, marveled at the way Taft has represented the University with distinction around the world: as team physician for the USA Pan-American Team in 1979; as team physician for the USA Olympic Team in 1980; as staff physician for the Olympic Games in 1996; and in 1999, as medical director for the Special Olympics World Games that brought to the Triangle some 7,000 athletes from more than 150 countries.

He has served on the local Red Cross Board of Directors and in various leadership roles in the Boy Scouts. In 1989, he was named Scoutmaster of the Year in Chapel Hill at about the same time he received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, the Boy Scouts of America’s highest honor for lifetime achievement.

Others who received the award that same year were Neil Armstrong, Bill Bradley and Stephen Spielberg. It was an award, like the Massey, that came out of the blue and left him feeling both humbled and proud.

There are many reasons Taft has made sports medicine his life’s work. One is that it never stopped being fun. For Taft, sports medicine is a busy intersection of activity where purpose and excitement fuse in a way that still keeps him on the edge of his seat – both as a physician and as a fan.

“I enjoy things that at the end have an answer, and in sports, at the end of the day, you win or you lose,” he said.

And if you lose one game, the next one always provides a chance for redemption.

One of his favorite stories happened when he served as the physician for a delegation of about 100 Special Olympics athletes from North Carolina competing in the national games in Iowa. North Carolina’s soccer term was expected to do well, but lost a game in an early round and had to fight its way back just to be able to play for a bronze medal.

The team ended up playing home team Iowa for the bronze and winning. “We had a group of athletes who were thrilled and ran around the field yelling, ‘We’re number three, we’re number three,’” Taft said.

Perhaps even more remarkable, everyone in the stands stood up to celebrate with them, even though they had just beaten the home team. For Taft, celebrating a group of athletes who had given their best to become the third-best team in America was the kind of “feel-good moment” he will never forget.

“All the athletes in Special Olympics try very hard to win, but their motto, which I think is just great, is, ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,’” Taft said.

“How applicable is that to life?” It is not as if winning is not a big deal because it is. But what is really inspiring is the bravery people must summon from within, as those athletes did out on that soccer field, to bring out their best.”

Maybe that is why even now, when there is no one else to push him, Taft still keeps running as fast as he can.

Originally published by University Gazette: Oct. 14, 2009

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