Roanoke College athletes competing in fall sports will be reporting to Salem in August, and for the first time in 40 years Jim Buriak won’t be there to greet them.
Buriak retired after the 2020-21 school year after serving the college as a trainer, professor and administrator since the fall of 1981. Before departing he was honored with a surprise reception at Mama Maria’s restaurant in Salem and informed that the college’s Athletic Training Clinic, located in the Cregger Center, will now be called the “James Buriak Athletic Training Clinic.”
“I had no idea,” said Buriak of the honor. “I really enjoyed my time here, teaching and working with students. It’s been really rewarding.”
A native of Johnstown, PA, Jim was a catcher for the Westmont Hilltop High School baseball team. He started dating his wife, Carol, in high school and they stayed together when he went to college at Lock Haven State College, which is now University. He was a Physical Education Major with a concentration in athletic training, graduating in 1978.
Buriak attended graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he also served as a teaching assistant. Upon graduation he took a job at Lycoming University in Williamsport, PA as the head athletic trainer. After one year there he saw a position vacancy notice for a position at a Division III school in southwest Virginia and decided to check it out. This included a faculty position, which was not the case at Lycoming, and Buriak accepted the job as Health & Physical Education professor and head athletic trainer at Roanoke College.
At the time Buriak’s office was located in a small room in ancient Alumni Gym and the training facility consisted of part of the basketball locker room. To say Jim left the school in a better place than when he arrived is very much an understatement.
“At that time I knew Bast was coming,” he said, referring to the C. Homer Bast Center that served as RC’s main athletic facility from 1982 until 2016, when the current Cregger Center opened. At the time the Bast Center was a top notch facility for Division III athletics.
“It was one of the best facilities in the ODAC(Old Dominion Athletic Conference),” said Buriak. “When I got here we started with nothing, but we were able to get rehabilitation equipment. It was a huge step up.”
As the first professional athletic trainer at Roanoke College Jim was a one-man staff for his first 15 years in Salem, with some help from students. Many of his students went on to become trainers in the Roanoke Valley and elsewhere as high schools started to understand the importance of having a full-time trainer at the school.
One of Jim’s goals was to start an athletic training major at RC, and in 1997 that came to be. That was a popular major at Roanoke until just last year when it was dissolved because of a then-new Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education mandate that requires an institution to offer graduate level courses to continue certifying athletic trainers. Roanoke does not offer graduate level courses.
“We are pretty sure he is the only faculty member, ever, at Roanoke College to propose, start, develop, implement and then dissolve their own academic major,” noted the resolution read at Jim’s retirement dinner.
During his time at Roanoke Buriak was inducted into the Roanoke College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Virginia Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame in 2010. He was recognized by the national Athletic Trainers Association(ATA) in 1997 and, in 1994, he received the college’s “Dean’s Council Award” for exemplary service to the college.
Buriak served under four Roanoke College presidents and was a valued colleague of countless coaches, sitting on the bench or standing on the sideline ready to assist an injured player at a second’s notice. He’s assisted in NCAA championships in Salem, administering drug tests when required and providing expertise and staff for the “City of Champions.” He also worked with the Special Olympics, Soccer Development Programs, the Virginia Commonwealth Games and many other organizations in the area that benefited from his expertise. He developed a close personal relationship with area doctors and health care personnel.
Jim and Carol lived in Salem and raised two children here. Laura, who played soccer for Salem, lives in Savannah, GA and Jimmy, who played lacrosse for the Spartans, is an Aviation Rescue Swimmer stationed in California. Jimmy received national attention when, on an off day, he saved the life of a man who was in distress who had drifted too far off a beach in Guam. Mostly, however, he jumps out of helicopters in rescue efforts.
Jim and Carol now live at Smith Mountain Lake, where he spends time on his boat and enjoys the retired life. He plans to continue to attend Roanoke College sports events, only now he won’t be at the school all day getting ready.
Buriak is proud of the number of students he has trained who have gone on to success in the field of athletic training. Many come back and visit.
“I hear from a lot of them,” he said. “We have a group of four or five who have zoom meetings to stay in touch. I’ve been very lucky and have really enjoyed my time here.”
Buriak is leaving the program in great shape, much better than when he crammed his stuff into Alumni Gym 40 years ago. Gabby Deucher, a Roanoke College graduate, is the new head athletic trainer and there are five licensed trainers on the staff. While Jim’s training room at the Bast Center was a great facility when it opened in 1982, it pales in comparison to the facilities at the Cregger Center.
“If it’s not the best in all of Division III, it’s certainly comparable,” said Buriak of the training room that overlooks Kerr Stadium. “There’s more space and it’s all state-of-the-art equipment, with in ground hot tubs and anything you might need.”
And, it will be a lasting testimony to Buriak’s contributions to Roanoke College, the city of Salem, the NCAA and the many lives he has touched. A plaque recognizing his contributions will be mounted inside the James Buriak Athletic Training Clinic for all to see.
“I really enjoyed mentoring and establishing close relationships with students in our athletic training program and am extremely proud of our graduates who are enjoying successful professional careers,” he said. “It gives me such pride to think that I may have had a small impact on their lives. Roanoke College has a special place in my heart that I will cherish forever.”