Timbers History

Timbers trainer Ron Culp, "the fastest ankle strapper in the West"

20210702 ron culp tony betts

The image of an athletic trainer has evolved to be something very specific in modern sports. Training tables. Treatment. Trips to the field to check on injured players. Ice packs applied afterward. Over the course of sports history, athletic training has evolved to be what its name implies. At the highest levels, you’re a steward of players’ health.

In 1975, athletic training was much more. Ron Culp knew. As a Timbers original and the team’s first athletic trainer, Culp was one of many asked to fill in the gaps of an organization that was just getting started.

“He was not only the trainer,” original Timber Peter Withe shared with the team. “He was advisor travel coordinator. I remember he used to stand at the front of the bus and give out information on places we were playing at. All the lads use to give him a bit of banter.

“We went to New York to play the Cosmos, who had just signed Pele. He stood at the usual place, in front of bus, to tell us a little bit about New York. Most of us had not been to New York. Some had never been to the USA.

“He started his chat and the guys started to give him a bit banter, and he quite loudly told us we had better listen to what he had to say, because it may save your life …

“’Guys you are in New York City,’” With remembers Culp saying. “’This is not like any other city in the USA. If a policeman stops you in the street and you give him banter like you give me, he will hit you with his billy club and we will take three of four days to get you out of a police cell … Stay on 5th, 6th, or 7th avenue and Broadway. If you venture out of these areas, we may find you in a gutter with wounds all over you, or even dead.’

“This certainly got the guys listening intensely.”

Culp passed away on June 9, 2021. He was 75 years old. With his loss, a piece of Timbers’ history is lost, too. Those who were in Portland for the 1975 season remember his part.

“One of the things I remember about him is that we played on old artificial turf at the old Civic Stadium, which was in a poor worn out state,” Timbers original Willie Anderson remembers. “When you went down, your skin would get scrapped off, and you needed to get it sprayed to stop it getting infected.

“Ron, or Culpy as we called him, would have to administer the spray. He would have two cans: one that did not sting, and one that did. The one that stung was so bad it made you scream and cry, it was so painful. The other can did not.

“You did not know which one he would spray you with. How he made the decision was how nice you had been to him that week. If you had not been nice, you were in trouble. He would stand you on the seat in front of your locker with the offending scrape facing him, and he would just smile at you and administer the spray.

“If it was the non-stinging one, what a relief. But if it was the painful one, ouch. You would call him all the names under the sun while he just smiled.”

From afar, it looks like athletic trainers occupy a world apart. They’re part of the squad. In reality, trainers become teammates, too.

“Hard to believe he was only 29 at the time and was as good as he was,” Anderson said. “He was the best I ever encountered in my over 20 years as a pro.”

Culp linked up with the Timbers because he was also the head trainer for the Portland Trail Blazers. He’d come to Oregon from his native Ohio in 1974, having left a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He stayed in Portland until 1987 then accepted a position with the Miami Heat, where he finished his career.

He was part of the Blazers’ championship team in 1977. He was the trainer for USA Basketball when the team win the 1994 FIBA World Championships and in 1996, when the U.S. won gold at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. When he retired from the Heat, he did so as the longest-serving trainer in professional basketball history.

“He told us he was the fastest ankle strapper in the west,” Withe remembers. “He lined us all on beds and then preceded to strap us all at an incredible rate. And when he strapped your ankle, it did not move. All the players loved the way he worked.”

“He treated every player the same,” Tony Betts said. “No favorites. No stars. We all loved his attitude to each one of us.”

But Betts didn’t listen to Culp about about New York.

“I got knocked out in Central Park the day before the game with the Cosmos,” he admits, now. “I was badly concussed, and he took me back to the hotel and stayed with me until the medics came. He followed me to the hospital, and the doctor wanted to operate on me for some unknown reason. Ron convinced the Timbers it was not necessary, but they should fly [the team doctor] Dr. Cook in to be with me as my doctor, so they could not do anything without his permission.”

“Coming from England, we never used ice as treatment,” Betts added. “He was the first trainer to introduce ice to the injured players. We were all amazed.”

After retiring, Culp briefly returned to Oregon before being lured back to the Heat by an ambassador’s role. He eventually returned and lived out his last days in Ohio.

Upon his passing, the legends of the Timbers’ first season wanted to share their memories. They wanted Culp’s part to be known.

“He and his wife Marilyn were two beautiful, quality people that I feel honored in knowing and spending time with,” Anderson shared. “Thanks, Ron, for some amazing memories. You were a special kind of person.”