Scaramuzzo Jones makes immeasurable impact
It is around 1 p.m. on a frigid Wednesday afternoon in northern New Jersey, and the toughest person in the XFL stalks the New York Guardians sidelines.
Darius Victor has snuck his way into a calisthenics drill at practice. It is nothing particularly taxing, but for a running back packing 226 pounds onto a 5-foot, 6-inch frame -- and one with a compromised ankle at the moment -- any false step could prove doom.
Victor has his head on a swivel, but not because of a roaming linebacker or a snarling safety.
Out of the corner of her eye, Madeleine Scaramuzzo Jones spots the Guardians running back and glares at him with the fire of a thousand suns. Victor stops dead in his tracks. He’s caught, and he knows not to test the woman they call Mad Dog.
“Aww, man, it’s her world, we just live in it,” Victor said of the head athletic trainer.
Like having a tail tucked between his legs, Victor shuffles back to the sideline and Scaramuzzo Jones nods.
“It’s hard because you know they want to play, and the coach wants them to play, and the coach looks at you like, ‘Why is this guy not playing?’ ” she said. “Coaches are experts on coaching, players are experts on playing -- this is my expertise. I don’t for a second think that I know how to do what they do, and there is that respect that I know what I’m doing in my position. I’ll let you do your job, you let me do mine.”
Could it be that the guardian to the Guardians’ long-term health is a 5-foot-nothing former gymnast with perhaps the best college football resume in the entire league?
Scaramuzzo Jones measures her time in bowl games, but you would too if you’d spent the past decade in her shoes.
She started at LSU as a student athletic trainer for the football Tigers in 2010-11, working the sidelines of a BCS championship game loss to Alabama in January 2012. Then she was off to grad school at Florida State, working the 2012 and 2013 seasons, including a national title and Jameis Winston’s Heisman run in ‘13. Next step: Penn State for a year with men’s and women’s rugby and three years of football, culminating in Gator, Rose and Fiesta Bowl berths. Texas A&M followed, albeit only for one year, but long enough for yet another Gator Bowl bid.
How’s that for a LinkedIn profile?
“She talks a lot of trash because of all those programs she’s been with,” Victor said. “And now LSU just won a championship, and we have to hear the fight song in the training room. You respect her, because she’s been around elite programs and she’s held her own.”
Ask Scaramuzzo Jones, and she’s standing on the shoulders of giants. She’s only here because of the mentors -- male and female -- who guided her.
But forget standing on the shoulders of giants -- right now, at 2 p.m. on this cold Wednesday afternoon, she’s rehabbing the shoulder of one.
“I’m intimidated by her. She commands respect and as someone in that position, she has to.”
John Kling stands about 6-foot-8, 330 pounds. In football parlance, the former Washington Redskins practice squad member is a hog, a hoss, a biggun’.
He’s a giant is what he is, and one who is hurting. He winces as he walks over to the sidelines then requires help getting his ample pads off.
Watching Scaramuzzo Jones stand on her tippiest of toes trying to wrap Kling’s shoulder is a sight to behold. She looks like she’s trying to reach a box of cereal on a high shelf. Sometimes, she said, she’ll have to hop onto the trainer’s table just to stretch a player.
Anything to get the job done.
“Any time you’re given the role of head athletic trainer, you have to know more than just medicine, but the sport itself,” Kling said. “Anyone can say my shoulder’s hurt. I say I was punching, and she knows exactly how it happened. For players, that’s invaluable.”
A half-hour before mending Kling’s shoulder so quickly he’s able to toss his pads back on in time for team offensive drills, an eye poke has sidelined 6-5 tight end Jake Powell, a local product from nearby Monmouth. He makes a beeline to Scaramuzzo Jones and drops to one knee. He’s still taller than her.
Ask the Guardians, and Scaramuzzo Jones casts the largest shadow on the field. Kling is blunt with it.
“I’m intimidated by her,” he says with a laugh. “She commands respect and as someone in that position, she has to.”
That respect is earned in practice day-in and day-out, where Kling lives: in the trenches.
It’s not often that Scaramuzzo Jones has to climb up to their level.
So often, they come down to hers.
Forget mending broken ankles. Scaramuzzo Jones’ greatest gift may be mending broken hearts.
At every level of major competitive organized football, the training table is more like a barbershop. Or, sometimes, a confessional.
“Players, they’re not going to tell coaches what they go through,” said Scaramuzzo Jones, whose husband, Ian, is a strength coach with NFL and college experience. “They’re not going to talk to their coach about girlfriend problems. We hear that a lot in the training room. Not as much at this level as they’re a little older, but in college, they’re all coming to you with their girl problems. ‘As a girl, what do you think of this?’ ”
More and more, Scaramuzzo Jones realized she was needed as much as a friendly face and an empathetic ear as she was to snap a dislocation into place.
As such, she’s attempting a master’s in social work.
“There is such a huge need in athletics,” Scaramuzzo Jones said. “We used to be like, ‘Do you need to see a psychologist,’ and it was like a whisper under your breath. Now it’s mainstream, and people recognize they need the help.”
Of all Scaramuzzo Jones’ gigs, the one she beams about most was serving as behavioral and mental health care coordinator for the Aggies during her lone season in College Station, Texas.
“When you look at what we’re trying to do, which is provide elite, all-encompassing health care, everything comes with it,” said Florida State senior associate director of Sports Medicine and head football athletic trainer Jake Pfeil, who plucked Scaramuzzo Jones away from LSU as his first grad assistant hire. “We’re not the ones to provide it all, but we’re the ones to facilitate it."
“When you’re the first person they know to come to, the first person they trust, people are going to come to you, and if they’re not coming to you, you’re not going to have that job.”
Speaking of jobs, Scaramuzzo Jones’ hope is that one day it will not be a story that she simply has one.
The XFL employs two female head athletic trainers -- Scaramuzzo Jones and the Los Angeles Wildcats’ Ariko Iso -- 18 years after Iso became the first female assistant athletic trainer in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“There are a lot of women getting into (training), and I don’t want to say they do a good job, because the good ones do a good job, no matter which gender,” Pfeil said. “It’s a level playing field there. If you come in and you work hard, make connections with people and they trust you, anybody can do the job.”
Added Victor: “Man, they should have been there all along. We all know that women are smarter than men. That’s why they live longer. You find a different kind of comfort in a woman in the training room than a man."
“There should be a lot more women involved in football -- in all aspects of the game.”
Scaramuzzo Jones knows that her perspective is sometimes unique in the Guardians’ locker room. She also knows that it is needed.
“(Players) are surrounded by men in every capacity,” she said. “There are men everywhere. Coaches are men, strength coaches, personnel, ops guys are men. It’s all men. So it’s good to get that balance.”
More and more, football men -- and particularly the players themselves -- are seeing that need for a different voice.
“It’s great to see people transcending the typical gender roles,” Kling said. “Mad Dog is our head athletic trainer, and my trainer for my previous team (the AAF’s Atlanta Legends) was a woman, and I’ve had a female defensive coach, too. When everyone thinks of football, it’s a masculine thing. I’ve been around football my whole life because my dad’s a coach, and my whole family knows football. My mom knows football. I know coaches whose daughters know more about the game than sons."
“So to see (women in football) now getting recognition, and to see them being put on these platforms where they can do something -- I think it’s awesome.”
And if anyone could use a platform, it’s Scaramuzzo Jones.
She’s only five-feet tall, after all.