From a Buffalo Bills Ball Boy to Co-Founder of Cincinnati’s largest independent physical therapy practice
By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos and Video by Madison Schmidt
“Ask him if they have a job for a ball boy.”
Asked then 17-year-old Pete Zulia in 1978, future co-founder with Ken Rusche of Oxford Physical Therapy, with now 14 clinics in Greater Cincinnati.
Big things can grow from the planting of small seeds and a strong belief in yourself and the goodness of others.
When Pete Zulia asked his sister, Regina, to ask the Buffalo Bills assistant athletic trainer Bud Tice that question – “Does he have a job for ball boy?” -- his sister was the head of the charter-division of a bus company that Tice was calling for charter bus connection for Bills’ training camp.
“Why?” his sister asked Pete.
“Just ask him,” said Pete, knowing there’d been a head-coaching change and that a new set of ball boys might be needed.
Tice said there wasn’t a need at that time, to which Pete had his sister tell Tice: “Tell him if something opens up, I’m always interested.”
Turns out that a collegian by name of Phil McConkey – yes, that Phil McConkey, the Naval Academy midshipman who could go on to play for four teams in the NFL, including the New York Giants, for whom he caught a touchdown pass, and a 44-yarder off a flea flicker that set up a touchdown, and a 25-yard punt return that set up a field goal in a 39-20 victory over Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI – had to opt out of a ball boy job for his hometown Bills in the first week of training camp, and the job went to Zulia.
During a conversation with Tice, one thing led to another and Tice asked Zulia what he wanted to study in college, what he wanted to do for a living. Zulia said he wanted to be a dentist, although it was following Tice around that got Zulia interested in athletic training.
At camp, Zulia also met two student athletic trainers from West Virginia University doing internships at the Bills’ camp. Zulia was impressed with them and ultimately wound up in the athletic training program at WVU, having been steered there by Tice.
When Zulia told Tice he wanted to be a pro athletic trainer someday, Tice told Zulia that he wouldn’t recommend him to anybody he applied to. “Why’s that?” Zulia asked. “Because you’re narrowing the number of people you can serve,” Tice answered. “You can serve more people if you work with the general public than in pro sports.”
Five hundred miles away in Cincinnati, Ken Rusche, former assistant athletic trainer for the Detroit Lions and director of physical therapy for UC Sports Medicine, was also working with his friend, Larry Starr, the head trainer for Big Red Machine.
Rusche would later become director of physical therapy at Wellington Sports Medicine, which is when his path crossed with Zulia.
Zulia had studied at WVU (athletic training) and the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his degree in physical therapy (having been steered there by the renowned John Spiker of WVU, who also had a PT clinic in Morgantown). Zulia would regularly come across Rusche’s byline in sports medicine journals about the treatment of specific injuries.
Even Spiker couldn’t recommend what Zulia did in final few weeks in Morgantown, coming off a bout with mononucleosis: Zulia had been accepted to PT school at Pitt over spring break of his senior year at WVU on the contingency that he pass eight hours of physics in six weeks.
Here it was late March, and orientation for PT school was three months away (June 17). Zulia, scheduled to graduate WVU the second weekend of May, immediately consulted Pitt’s academic calendar which showed that its first semester of summer school started the first week of April.
“I figured out that I could go to school in the morning for the final month in Morgantown and that on Mondays and Wednesdays I could drive to Pitt’s main campus, 75 miles away, and take Physics I and the lab – that’s five of the eight hours – and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I could take engineering-calculus-based Physics II at Pitt-Greensburg, another 75 miles from Morgantown.”
He put 1,200 miles a week on his 1973 AMC Sportabout, a hand-me-down car from his parents, a couple of Greatest Generation’ers.
“I went to orientation not knowing if I’d passed my last Physics II class on the Greensburg campus – my exam was Thursday night and orientation was Friday morning – and here I had moved from Morgantown to Pittsburgh, not knowing if it was for two weeks or two years.”
From that point forward, Zulia always figured that if he could out-dream even his coaches and mentors, and push himself beyond what they thought possible, well, then, he could do the impossible.
I first met Zulia at Wellington Sports Medicine in January 1988.
Dr. Robert Heidt and Dr. Warren Harding had totally reconstructed the left knee of Reds second baseman Ron Oester, who had been torn up in a takeout slide by the New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson in July 1987. It would take six to seven weeks for Oester’s knee to heal, and twice that in rehabilitation.
I looked up the second story I did on Oester’s surgery/rehab.
“For a month after surgery, Oester’s knee was locked at a 30-degree angle inside a cast-brace. (When the knee is fully extended, the knee is at 0 degrees. When the heel touches the buttock, the knee is approximately at 140 degrees.) Oester was in a wheelchair for two weeks, and on crutches for several weeks after that.
”Pete Zulia, physical therapist and athletic trainer at the Wellington Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center, knew there was only one way to get Oester’s knee to zero. (Be done with your breakfast Wheaties by now, dear readers.) Sit on it.
“They had to strap me down,” said Oester.
Every day for weeks on end, Oester went to the Wellington Center on Five Mile Road for Rehabilitation. Twenty to thirty minutes of that was Zulia using his knee as a couch. Compared to Zulia’s tortures, the rack would be a respite.
“I couldn’t scream because there were so many people there,” Oester said. “But I did some serious grimacing. People would wander in. You could see them thinking, ‘What are they doin’ to this guy? A couple of times, Pete just closed the door. He didn’t want anybody to see what was going on.’ ”
Zulia was able to manage a laugh from that experience this week.
“When I’d see Ron in the Reds clubhouse later, he cussed me out for a full minute, called me ever foul name in the book. I said, ‘Are you done?’ Ron said, ‘I have to yell at you now because I couldn’t yell at you then with all those nice people around.’ ”
I asked Ken Rusche on Wednesday night what it was he saw in Zulia that led him to cast his business fate with him in 1993 when they opened their first physical therapy center in Oxford near the Miami University campus.
Rusche hired Zulia out of Pitt in 1985. For starters, Rusche liked that Zulia was both an athletic trainer and physical therapist, which was Rusche’s background as well. At the time, Rusche hired Zulia, Rusche was Wellington’s director of physical therapy.
“Self-starter, a leader, great work ethic, great energy,” recalls Rusche of what he observed of Zulia over the next few years before they opened the center in Oxford.
Rusche is 10 years older than Zulia, who describes Rusche as his “friend, mentor, boss, brother, business partner, all those things.
“He’s from Reading, but he’s the kind of guy who could have been my next-door neighbor in Lockport, New York,” Zulia says.
“He’s also the most amazing person I know for being able to look at people, personalities and jobs, and fitting square pegs into round holes. He can ‘see’ things, move in directions and describe it in such simplistic terms that people understand it and want to be a part of it.”
“Outreach” is the name of the game. To a large extent, Rusche was one of the pioneers in the field hereabouts when it came to athletic training and physical therapy.
“One thing I’ve learned from Kenny from the start is that collateral relationships always come to pass. In other words, I could meet somebody somewhere and it inevitably comes back to Ken and Reading, Ohio; Ken and Ohio University, Ken and Larry Starr, Ken and UC, Ken and the Big Red Machine…That’s where the networking comes in. If people don’t like you, they’re not going to bring you up. People bring up Kenny.”
Zulia marvels that nobody ever put the brakes on him.
“They just let me (fly),” Zulia said. “Bud, John and Kenny… They all just seemed to say – I don’t know, because I never talked to them about it – ‘we’ve just got to get this guy in the right place, because he knows where he wants to go.’ ”
And that’s the whole point.
“You don’t get anywhere alone,” Zulia said. “I’m the living, breathing embodiment of that.”
Several years ago, Zulia gave a presentation at WVU -- where he got his MBA back in 2014 and says he learned a ton that he’s been able to apply at Oxford Physical Therapy. His presentation was about relationships.
“I had five slides where I had names two-wide of the people who were instrumental in my life and career. I said, ‘Please know you don’t do this alone. And if you think you do, you’ve missed it. It isn’t about you.’ ”
Of course, there was prominent discussion of Pete's and Ken's better halves -- Linda and Jody, respectively -- and the sometimes unimaginable (to Pete and Ken, anyway), indefatigable support, backbone and yes, faith and love, they brought to the enterprise.
The last two slides were of Pete's and Linda's daughter, Chelsey, at the time riding ponies on her way to becoming an accomplished equestrian, and their son, Chandler. Chelsey once introduced him at a show-and-tell at her grade school as “This is my Dad. He fixes people.” A few years later, one early August evening, Chandler called for him while participating in an 11-year-olds’ football practice for the Sycamore Athletic Club.
“He called out, ‘Hey, Dad… Eric hurt his knee. You need to go look at him.’
“On those two occasions, I immediately thought, ‘I’ve made it. My kid knows what I do,’ ” recalls Zulia, smiling. “They got it back then, and they’re still getting it today.
“The rest of it is icing on the cake.”