Appreciating Assistant Athletic Trainers

John Norwig has the right to be proud.

Playoff football’s in the air. I’m here in Kansas City with NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football crew to cover this weekend’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Here’s one story line which probably won’t make the headlines: During Sunday’s clash at Arrowhead Stadium, Steelers’ long-time Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig will be working across the field from one of his former assistants Rick Burkholder, now the Chiefs’ Head Athletic Trainer.

Wait, it gets better.

Last weekend during Pittsburgh’s 30 – 12 Wildcard playoff win over Miami, John watched another one of his former assistants Ryan Grove at work on the opposing sideline. Grove is in his 3rd season as the Head Athletic Trainer for the Miami Dolphins.

By all accounts, this is the first time in NFL history two head athletic trainers (AT) faced their professional mentor in back to back games. Seeing it happen in playoff games makes it that much cooler.

Some may read this and say; “So what!”

I’m willing to bet those same individuals have never spent any time in an Athletic Training Room or had an injury requiring the care of a certified athletic trainer. If he/she had, they would have a greater appreciation for the skills needed to keep elite athletes healthy.

Being Grateful

I could not have done my job as the head athletic trainer/physical therapist for the Jacksonville Jaguars for 20 years without the efforts of my loyal and hard-working assistant athletic trainers. I owe much of my success and blessings to my talented assistants and interns who, from July to January, literally spent more time with me than we did with our own wives and children.

My assistants and interns were part of my family.

Every “head guy” in a professional or college settings will tell you the same thing: Assistant athletic trainers are the backbone of the day-to-day work needed to keep athletes safe.

My Reward

I was thrilled to see two of my assistants – John Burrell (Washington) and Joe Sheehan (Cleveland) – move on to become head athletic trainers in the NFL. They worked hard for the Jaguars and me and I owed them my very best efforts to help them succeed in reaching their professional goal of becoming an NFL head athletic trainer.

I firmly believe this responsibility also applied to interns who have proven themselves worthy of becoming full-time AT’s in the NFL.  An NFL internship is not an easy job. The low-paying position is filled with long thankless days and endless To Do lists.

I’m proud of my two former interns – Marco Zucconi (San Diego….I mean the Los Angeles Chargers) and Doug Quon (Washington) – who are employed as assistant AT’s in the league. A 2009 Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) survey of its members found 88% of head athletic trainers served as interns in the NFL and 86% of assistants were previously NFL interns.  Needless to say, an internship is a proven path into an NFL athletic training room.

Time For Athletic Trainers to Move On

A common goal for most head athletic trainers who truly appreciate and respect their assistants is to help their loyal protégés to move up the food chain.  That means helping their assistants to become a head athletic trainer in the NFL or the college ranks. It’s only fair.

Most of us who were fortunate enough to lead our departments previously worked as interns and assistants doing the same crappy jobs no one else wanted to do. Who do you think is cleaning the storage rooms late at night, packing the travel trunks, taping a majority of the ankles, bringing the injured rookie ice bags at 3 AM and setting up the road game athletic rooms at 5 AM? It’s the assistant athletic trainers!

When I asked John Norwig to describe his feelings when he looks across the field to see his former assistants in the role of head AT in the NFL, his reply was filled with passion and admiration. It’s a common trait of John, which makes him so genuine and likeable. “Proud,” Norwig replied, “I’m so proud to have helped them become successful.”

I think Rick Burkholder, Chiefs’ Head Athletic Trainer and current President of the Professional Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) says it best; “Assistant athletic trainers are the life blood of the sports medicine teams in the NFL.

Like Rick, I was an assistant in the NFL before I headed south to join the expansion Jaguars in 1994. I was so fortunate to learn and grow under the guidance of my mentor and friend Ronnie Barnes with the New York Giants for 6 amazing years.  It was a wonderful opportunity for me and I’m forever grateful to Ronnie for his trust and guidance.

Stay the Course

I applaud assistant athletic trainers at all levels of sports medicine. You work extremely hard for others. It may not seem like it at times but everyone from the head AT’s, players, coaches, families and co-workers see your tremendous efforts and appreciate the positive impact you have on your athletes.

Assistant athletic trainers Note-to-Self:  WHEN you become a head athletic trainer, take care of your assistants and help prepare them to someday move up the food chain as you have done.

3 replies
  1. Josie M.
    Josie M. says:

    Fantastic piece!! I cheer more for athletic trainers that I do players, because I know they are the backbones to the team. Some of my favorite ATs in the NFL happen to be assistants of interns, they are fantastic role models and people to look up to to form dreams of my athletic training future!

    Reply
  2. Ajaya Williams
    Ajaya Williams says:

    Thank for this post. As I am not an ATC in the NFL, I was one of the few female certified’s that was given the opportunity to intern for the summer with the Buffalo Bills club in 2008. I thank Shone Gipson and Bud for the opportunity and now that experience has led to me to be an assistant with Columbia University’s department as the men’s basketball head athletic trainer. Thank you for recognizing your crew as we know working in this profession if you are expecting recognition you may be waiting your whole career. You are right that is is important to pull those up below you and help them to grow as professionals, as I enjoy doing with our students.

    Reply
    • Mike Ryan
      Mike Ryan says:

      Thank you for your word of support Ajaya. I applaud your drive and career path. Shone is one of my favorite #athletictrainer in the #NFL. I’m sure you had a very educational experience working with the Bills great medical staff.
      Say HI to Jim Gossett for me. I did a summer internship with him long ago and he taught me so much.
      I wish you the very best in this wonderful world of athletic training.

      Reply

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