George Billauer’s life was forever altered by another man’s bad back.
That happened 27 years ago, when Billauer was a high school soccer coach and chiropractor, two professions then considered just a step above cult leader. The U.S. national team was playing in Southern California and John Doyle’s sore spine was not responding to traditional treatment.
Two teammates who had been patients of Billauer offered his phone number.
“I had known the skepticism of medical doctors to what I do,” Billauer remembers of his first meeting with Bert Mandelbaum, the team orthopedist. “So I started to explain myself and he right away stopped me and says, ‘Look, our medical staff is a team. We need you as part of the team. I know what you can do. Let’s get to work.’ ”
Billauer has been on the job ever since, traveling to seven World Cups, more than 80 countries and six continents with nothing more binding than a handshake for a contract.
“I’ve never had a written agreement,” said Billauer, wearing a blue U.S. Soccer track suit and sitting in the sun-splashed lobby of the team’s resort hotel in Orlando last month. “It’s all verbal agreements. And for all those years, it was assumed that I would be at a game.”
Those assumptions have generally proven correct with Billauer, who turns 68 this month, outlasting five coaches and three federation presidents. Only Mandelbaum has been with the team longer.
The chiropractor has been around so long, in fact, he’s become a father figure to many players, who still seek him out for more than just spinal adjustments.
“When you’re with them long enough, they will confide in you. And if they know that you then won’t blow the whistle on them, they’ll continue to do that,” he said. “I’ve sat with players in rooms, you know, listening to them bemoan the fact that they’re not playing. There’s a role to be played as a listener.
“You don’t always need to give them an answer. It’s just to be a good listener.”
Sometimes. it’s best not to give an answer.
Billauer, who spent 10 years coaching soccer, and some of the other doctors would often come up with their own lineups for national team matches — though they shared them with the actual U.S. coach just once.
During Bruce Arena’s first stint as coach he invited some of the medical staff into the office at his Virginia home where they noticed his starters’ names posted on a sheet of paper. Arena asked Billauer what he thought of the lineup and the chiropractor told him.
The coach was not amused.
“ ‘Fine,’ ” Billauer remembers him saying, “ ’you stick to the medical stuff and I’ll stick to coaching.’
“No one’s ever asked us since.”
There are few other rules, though.
“I’ve learned over the years I don’t go out on the field and touch the ball. And I don’t tell the coach what to do,” Billauer said.
That goes both ways. Before the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, Billauer said the U.S. staff was about to send Claudio Reyna to see a French doctor about a hamstring problem when Mandelbaum stepped in and overruled them, insisting Billauer should do the work.
After twice-daily chiropractic treatments, Reyna played more minutes than all but one American midfielder in the tournament, helping the U.S. reach the quarterfinals for the only time in the modern era.
“The first time I saw George working, he walked around the table like he was Fred Astaire,” said former national team coach Dave Sarachan. “The way he moves and the way he manipulates people, he was so easy and so comfortable.”
Sarachan remembers watching Billauer work on Clint Mathis, who had an unusual muscular injury during that same World Cup. After some routine manipulation, Billauer started tapping Mathis on the forehead, then had the player stick his thumb under the roof of his mouth.
“He was doing things that were almost witch-doctor-like,” Sarachan said. “And so [Mathis] gets off the table and he feels great. I said to George, where the hell has this been the whole time? He goes, ‘Yeah, I come up with this stuff.’ I don’t know if he made it up, if it was real or just psychological, but Clint was a new man.”
As stories like that have become commonplace, chiropractors have become ubiquitous parts of medical staffs in every sport. Billauer, who grew up playing basketball, has worked not just for the U.S. national soccer team but for both the Galaxy and LAFC, the Philippine soccer federation, Colombian club Atletico Nacional, heavyweight boxers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, both the Dodgers and the NHL’s Kings, and, after the U.S. was eliminated from the last World Cup, he went to Russia with the Mexican team.
Billauer said many of the Mexicans who played for domestic teams, where chiropractors are rare, didn’t know what to make of the tall gringo and his pidgin Spanish.When European-based players such as Chicharito Hernandez came in for daily adjustments, Billauer could see the younger men watching from outside the training room.
“When I was done, they would grab Chicharito and pull him aside and ask, ‘What was that? Was it good?’ By the last game against Brazil, I was so busy, it was insane.”
Billauer has made a career out of winning over doubters. Many former players, now long retired, still look him up for a chat or, more commonly, an adjustment at the Marina del Rey apartment where he occasionally does work.
Billauer has gathered more than just friends and patients over the years though. LAFC coach Bob Bradley, who is both of those things, says the chiropractor collects everything that isn’t tied down.
“He’s got jerseys from everyplace,” Bradley said. So when the coach, who has kept few mementos from his own career, was invited to Billauer’s 60th birthday party, he knew just what to bring.
“At the end of the year, I had received [the] Commissioner’s Award,” Bradley said. “Everybody was going to bring a gift. I know that he’s George. [And] on the commissioner’s award. it just says Commissioner’s Award. It doesn’t say the names.
“At George’s 60th birthday, I gave him the Commissioner’s Award. And so, in his apartment, with all his memorabilia, George proudly displays the 2010 Commissioner’s Award.”