Tending to pigs once was a part of David R. Schmidt’s daily routine growing up in a hard-working family with modest means on a ranch in Harper.
One early morning when he was 11, he had to get into the muck with the pigs to get his work done and then run to school. When he arrived sweating and still partly covered in filth, the 12 other children in his class razzed him about how he looked and smelled.
The sting of that shot to his pride stuck with him, just like the numerous times he found himself stuck on the side of the road when his father’s 1952 blue GMC truck broke down. He had to fix that truck on the side of the road so many times, in the cold winds of winter and the brutal July heat.
He resolved from those experiences that when he got older he would never again be so poor that he couldn’t afford to change his shoes or hire a mechanic.
Those who know Schmidt best say he is driven like no one they’ve encountered. He first thought he wanted to be a veterinarian, but a conversation with his grandfather, David, steered him toward helping people instead as an orthopedic surgeon.
Schmidt is best known for serving as the San Antonio Spurs’ team doctor since 1993, but that is not where he has made his most significant impact. In nearly four decades in practice, Schmidt has helped thousands of people all over South Texas, some through surgeries and rehabilitation and others through volunteer work he does with his practice, youth organizations, middle and high schools, universities, and the community.
His work has earned him induction into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday at the Henry B. González Convention Center as part of the 2019 class, which also includes former NFL offensive lineman Bruce Collie, former Spurs forward Malik Rose and eminent high school football coach Jim Streety.
“I’ve been involved with sports in this community for a long, long time and there are a lot of people who should be in [the hall] that are a whole lot more deserving,” Schmidt said. “It’s the old classic saying, I’m honored and I’m humbled, but for me, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I kind of like to fly under the radar.”
Deep Texas Roots
Schmidt said his ancestors helped establish Fredericksburg in the 19th century and the family has maintained a consistent presence in South Texas since. He said he loved the country life as a boy and took his cues from his father, Harold, and grandfather, who taught him never to tell a lie.
“I’m just a polished redneck,” he said.
He began to dream of a life in medicine during high school when he played six-man football on Friday nights and took off his shoulder pads at halftime to play the tuba in the band.
Schmidt eventually left his small community to find his place in the larger world. He was well-prepared from a childhood of hard work on the ranch and life lessons from those two men he still often quotes to this day. He shares his grandfather’s name but insists his own middle initial be used because “I couldn’t carry his water,” he said.
He graduated from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio – now UT Health San Antonio – and completed his residency there in orthopedic surgery. Then he set out for Sydney and for Auckland, New Zealand, where he completed fellowships in knee surgery and sports medicine.
Not long after returning from Down Under in the mid-1980s, Schmidt joined the practice of Dr. Jack Henry in San Antonio. Henry had served as the team doctor for the San Antonio Spurs for 17 years. When he eventually decided to move back to New York in 1993, Spurs General Manager Bob Bass called Schmidt in for an interview.
He has been the team doctor since, helping hundreds of players over the years – from All-Stars and faces of the franchise to men who made only brief appearances on the roster. He remains in contact with many of them, hearing from some of them last fall when his induction to the Hall of Fame was announced.
“It’s a fabulous organization,” Schmidt said. “I think maybe one of the reasons I haven’t been fired is our values align very much. They’re very community oriented and family oriented and giving back. The fact that our values have aligned has helped me survive.”
Schmidt also worked as a physician for the 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival, the 1995 World University Games in Japan, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. His work with the Spurs has taken him to Mexico, Berlin, and Istanbul, as well as the NBA Finals six times, where he watched the franchise win five championships.
Schmidt is president of the NBA Physicians Association and was the NBA Physician of the Year in 2004. He also serves as the team physician for the University of Texas at San Antonio, Trinity University athletes, and numerous San Antonio-area high schools.
“Dr. Schmidt has been so consistent for so many years unselfishly caring about this basketball team and the athletes in general in the whole city,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters last fall. “From our selfish perspective we are very fortunate to have had him in that situation. But he has been there for athletes at every level at every age, and it makes him special.”
‘You Get Back More Than You Give’
Almost as soon as Schmidt began practicing medicine in San Antonio, he looked for ways to help the community. He has volunteered on the sidelines at hundreds of high school football games, helping to care for kids who get injured.
When he opened Sports Medicine Associates of San Antonio on Feb. 27, 2004, he did so with three other doctors. The practice grew to four locations around San Antonio with 13 doctors. During high school football season, Schmidt requires each of them to spend at least one night (Thursday-Saturday) each week on the sidelines, donating their time to care for young athletes. He also oversees an outreach program hiring athletic trainers to cover high school football games in much of South Texas.
Part of his motivation for serving young people and schools with medical professionals comes from his own high school football experience, where “the closest thing to an athletic trainer was your head football coach who had a roll of tape on his thumb.”
Karen Funk, executive director for athletics for the North East Independent School District, said it’s “all about relationships” for Schmidt.
“I can’t say enough good things about the things that he does, that his organization does, to build the bonds that trainers in our area feel supported and kids are supported and school districts are supported,” Funk said.
“You know sometimes you’d like to have a Friday night at home or take your wife out to dinner, but they give that up, and that’s a huge sacrifice on his part and on his staff’s part.”
Schmidt then turns around Saturday mornings and opens his office for sports clinic for young athletes who need to see a doctor after an injury or who need physicals or other services. Families don’t need to have insurance or appointments, Schmidt said.
Schmidt said his Christian faith compels him to serve his community.
“I mean, I just get to take care of very elite-level athletes to middle school kids,” Schmidt said. “I watch these kids that I’ve operated on. I watch their careers and some go on to college and some to the pros. It’s very gratifying. That’s the one thing I love about it. It’s a big city but it’s small enough that you can have an impact on your community if you want to. What we’ve done with our group – and I think it’s one of the things that has made us successful – is we’ve really invested in our community.”
‘When He’s Not Working, He’s Working’
Teresa Schmidt said her husband has been an early riser for years, typically after about five hours of sleep. It was ingrained in him as a boy on the ranch. His mind starts clicking at 3 or 3:30 a.m. He begins each day with a devotional reading and exercise.
While he has done so much for so many San Antonio families over the years, his best work with young people came at home with his son, Benjamin, and daughter, Casey.
Benjamin grew up to attend Texas Christian University and serve as a Marine sniper who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. Casey Schmidt teaches children in a community center.
“He was strict but incredibly loving and fair,” Casey Schmidt said. “He worked a lot, but I don’t have any recollection of feeling secondary ever. He went to every sports game of my brother’s and every performance of mine. He made us breakfast each morning and took us to school. We had a family dinner every night when we were there.”
When he couldn’t be there, he made sure his children knew he was thinking of them. He shaped little animals and figurines out of green clay used in his surgical procedures and carved their initials in them. He wrote them notes.
Schmidt set out the newspaper each morning on the breakfast table for his children to read. Casey got the comics and Benjamin the sports page until they were old enough to choose for themselves. He checked his kids’ homework in the evenings while enjoying a cigar after tending to his vegetable garden and other projects. Nights often were spent with a half-hour of the History Channel and then everyone grabbing a book and piling into Dad’s bed. He always encouraged reading, Casey Schmidt said.
“I have no idea how he managed to do it and how he wasn’t just exhausted,” she said. “He was also, back then, he was running 5 miles a day. He’d come back in from his run when we were just waking up. I feel like there were five of him running around.”
On Oct. 6, 2011, the Schmidt family received the worst news. Marine Lance Cpl. Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt was killed in action in Afghanistan in what later was determined to be a friendly-fire incident.
David R. Schmidt wears a sniper’s bullet known as a “Hog’s Tooth” around his neck. It belonged to his son, who gave it to his father when he saw him for the final time before returning to combat.
“If I have a success story in my life, it’s probably what rubbed off on him,” Schmidt said.
Another one of his son’s final acts was donating $200,000 of his life insurance policy to help endow a scholarship for a graduate history students at TCU. His father later matched the contribution and dozens of others have contributed as well, ensuring the scholarship will continue for decades to come. The Schmidt family also has helped raise $1 million for a professorship at the school.
Schmidt said he is most proud of his children. Beyond his family he isn’t as certain what his greatest contribution has been. Perhaps it is still to come.
“He just enjoys kids. He loves sports. He loves action. He wants just to help,” Teresa Schmidt said. “It’s easy for him. He doesn’t even think about it. He enjoys it and I think he will always want to do it.
“I don’t think there is a retirement any time soon or ever until he can’t cover a high school football game or college football game. He’s amazing. He just can’t slow down. His mind is always on what he enjoys doing. When he’s not working, he’s working out at the ranch, cutting, planting, sawing. He’s just go, go, go, go, go. Every once in a while we’ll be somewhere and he’s forced to relax and he’ll go, ‘That was kind of nice.’”