Gratitude, Change & a Trusted Vision

Ryan Jags 2011aApril 25, 1988 was the day my childhood NFL dream came true.

Ronnie Barnes, the Head Athletic Trainer for the New York Giants and one of my mentors, asked me if I wanted to join his staff as a full-time assistant athletic trainer.  I was 25 years old and a month away from graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in Physical Therapy, my second degree in 7 years.

Nine years earlier, as a sophomore in high school, I had set my mind and heart on “being an athletic trainer in the NFL!” after “Miss G”, a caring guidance councilor at Mohawk Trail High School, showed me info on the profession of athletic training.  I still remember racing home that rainy spring day to share my powerful vision with my family.

End of a Dream

Friday, February 7, 2014 was my last day with the Jacksonville Jaguars.  It was the end of a 26 year career that encompassed 533 NFL games including 2 Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl victory.  It was a decision I made three weeks early to rebalance my life, allowing me to spend more time with my family.  With a loving and amazingly supportive wife and two children under the age of 6, I’m ready to prioritize my family for the first time the way they deserve after a long season where I work 7 days per week for 5 1/2 straight months.

Making the Call

I’m no fool.  I know I had only 1 of 32 jobs in the world’s #1 most profitable sports league.  It goes beyond that when it comes down to those that you love.

What does it take to make such a big decision?

  • Gratitude – I’ve lived a childhood dream for over half my life with so many memories, experienced amazing opportunities, met so many wonderful people and developed outstanding skills for the next professional chapter in my life.  I have so much gratitude and appreciation for my family, my assistants, my doctors, my athletes, my medical consultants and mentors who have helped me throughout the years.  As I always say: “I’m simply the result of so many wonderful people who were willing to help me along the way!”
  • Desire for Change – I’m ready for a change, as is my family.  I trust my skills and my abilities to make this change something special.
  • Trusted Vision of Purpose – We all need PURPOSE if we want to be a leader in our life.  I have a very strong sense of purpose in my life and I trust that vision wholeheartedly.  My Personal Mission Statement is: To Enhance the Health of Others.

My purpose in this next chapter is to take what my staff and I have created in a professional football athletic training room setting working with world-class athletes and share it with millions of non-professionals interested in decreasing their pain, increasing their physical function and maximizing their active lifestyle.  Now that’s something to get excited about, huh?!

Giving Thanks

I have so many people to thank and I’m not sure where to start so I won’t.  The tens of thousands of extra special people who I’ve come into contact with over the last 26 years in the NFL are all somehow on that list.

I’ve had a wonderful career and I don’t take that for granted.  I’m thrilled for what I will created in Phase 2 of my profession.  We only live once so I plan on making my life grand.  As for the professional life, it will be exciting and well aligned with my Mission Statement.  In regards to my athletic life, I’ll be working my ass off to be extremely healthy in aspect of my life with lots of crazy/challenging races to keep my body and mind razor-sharp.  For the personal life part, it will be filled with lots of love and laughter….just the way I like it!

5 1/2 Tips to Win a Mud Run

Mike Ryan, Mud Run Winner

This past weekend’s big local mud run is the talk of the town.  With thousands of participants and so many wonderful stories involving the event, the MS MuckRuckus was a huge success.

I was fortunate enough to win this year’s Competitive Male race.  I’d finished in 2nd place the last two years, so the 3rd time surely was “the charm.” Watching the backside of the guy in front of me finish the victor the last two years was a real bummer.  I have to admit: the final 100 yards as the winner sure was a rush.

Be it my age (49) or my busy schedule (2 children under 4, married, work in the NFL & having a life), everyone seems to ask the same question: “How did YOU win the race?”  Amused and entertained by the inquiries, I decided to break my silence and have some fun with the topic….

Secret Tips to Win a Mud Run

1.  Fake It Til You Make It – As I squeezed my way to the front of the lead pack of Alpha Dogs in the starting corral before the race, I quickly noticed two things.  All the guys were 1/2 my age and none (0) of them were wearing shirts.  Sporting my new sleeveless Under Armour running shirt with my massive biceps glistening in the sun, I asked confidently: “Hey man, is it legal to be wearing a shirt?!”  A couple of guys thought I was serious and tried to reassure me that I would not be kicked out of the race.  We all laughed, I firmly shook hands, looked them in the eyes wishing each of them a “safe race – but not a fast race”.  I was confident and they knew it.

2.  Professional Humiliation – Two days before the race I was meeting with one of my bosses with the Jacksonville Jaguars.  When asked about the race and how I would do, I gave my standard “I feel great and I’ll give it everything I have”. I explained that I had finished in 2nd place the last two-year.  I was told firmly: “You better take it up a notch, Ryan!”

When Gabe Andrews and I were battling it out in the woods and mud, I was fading.  As the strong 23-year-old was putting a serious hurting on me by pushing the pace hard, I could hear the message loud and clear: “You better take it up a notch, Ryan!”  When faced with the risk of professional humiliation by someone farther up the professional food chain, suddenly the pain in my legs and lungs seems much less concerning!

3.  Humor & Humble the Competition – About 4 miles into the race, Young Gabe and I came upon “The Scooch”.  Appropriately named, the 12″ diameter plastic pipes had to be mounted like a horse saddle and we scooched along the 30 foot piping in a funky kind of manner.  After jumping off the first piping and feeling kind of violated, we had to straddle the next set of taint-haters.  Trying to fake that I wasn’t tired, I joked with Gabe “the ladies will like this one much more than we will”.  He laughed and suddenly slowed down.  I took advantage by quickly jumping off the end of the cruel toy and put in a hard sprint of about 80% effort.  I opened a 30 yard lead before the next obstacle.  Gabe never regained the lead.

4.  Bring Your Heart – Ten years ago this June, my best friend Rod Chaplin passed away training for the Long-Course Triathlon World Championships to be held in Nice, France.  Born and raised in South Africa, he was one of the nicest AND toughest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  Since his death, I alway race with his small South Africa flag which his widow gave to me to carry on his passion for fellowship through fitness.  Whenever the tendency to feel sorry for myself starts to whisper in my ear during a race, I slap his flag, I think of Rod and I remind myself how lucky I am be exactly where I am right now!

5.  Be Comfortable Doing What Others Don’t Like to Do – No one likes to crawl in mud, dunk under dark brown dirty water or get mud pushed up your nose.  That’s why I love doing it.  A great mudder once told me that he attacks the obstacles.  He doesn’t just ease into or out of the obstacles, he attacks them.  That’s the approach I use and it saves me precious time.  If I trim off an extra 2 seconds in every obstacle by being excited to dive into the mud hole or race up the cargo net, I’m putting myself minutes ahead of the timid dude trying to keep his face clean.

BONUS TIP:  If all else fails…..simply run, crawl, run, climb, run, roll and run faster than everyone else!  How hard can that be?

The Many Wins to Follow

Like I told my friend last night at dinner, I’m not sure if I’ll ever win another big race again.  I’m grateful to be able to be involved in wonderful events like the MS MuckRuckus.  Being active and healthy is a gift that I give thanks for each and every day.  With and my exciting profession as an Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist in the NFL, I want to give others the opportunity to decrease their pain, enhance their health and improve their lives.  When that happens, each one of those individuals becomes a better wife, a better friend, a happier brother, a more loving mother, a more productive co-worker, etc.  In other words, everyone wins when the health of others is enhanced.

Those are the type of wins that I’m looking for!  

Will you help me share my dream with others? Please share with your Facebook friends, Tweet or Google+ so everyone can benefit from good health.

Life at the NFL Combine – 2012

It’s NFL combine time and the excitement here in Indy has never been better.  With Super Bowl memories still alive in the host city and hundreds of future NFL star players in town, the upcoming 2012 NFL season gives everyone good reason to be optimistic.

“What Do the Players Really Do at the Combine?

Answer:  They interview for a career that will pay them millions of dollars playing a game.

That “interview” is much different than the one that most new college graduates prepare for each year.  These former collegiate stars are put through a series of test stations that start at 5 AM and include the following tests:

  • Body Measurements
  • Neuropsych baseline testing
  • Complete orthopedic & internal medical examinations
  • Special medical tested – as needed
  • Wonderlic Test – to assess learning and problem solving skills.
  • Isokinetic lower extremity testing
  • Personal interview
  • Bench press
  • 40 yard dash
  • Vertical jump
  • Broad jump
  • 3 Cone drill
  • 60 yard shuttle run
  • Position-specific drills

How Tough Can it Be?

I’ll tell you right now; the Combine is tough on these players!  It’s a stressful and physically demanding endeavor for these young men to complete.  They all know it’s a necessary hurdle if they want to make professional football a career.

I see it every year and, while the names change, the attitude of competition and determination remains the same for the football players that succeed at the Combine.

These tough guys come in here with a lot of confidence and they want to show the world how good they really are.  They are willing to accept the boredom of the lonely MRI at 11 PM, the pains of dozens of pokes of the doctor examinations and the tedious questions from the coaches during the interviews just to get on that field.  The field is their “happy place” is where they will shine and bring that childhood dream to a whole new level.

Surprises: Both Good & Bad

I enjoy being a part of this NFL Draft selection process in an effort to make this amazing league stronger.  With new players for next year’s rosters, I get to see tomorrow’s superstars today.

The value of some of the players that we examine over the next 2 days will rise while others will fall.  Who’s faster than expected?  Who’s shorter than their college media guide said they were?  Whose knee is stronger than expected?

The Bottom Line on the NFL Combine

My main responsibility at the Combine is to oversee all medical issues related to the medical grading of every player we examine.  I have an outstanding medical staff with me that work very hard for the Jaguars.  Our medical team here at the Combine consists of certified athletic trainers, orthopedic surgeons, internal medicine physicians and a radiologist.  They are all my VIP’s and I greatly value their input as we all work together to put one (1) overall medical grade on each and every player.

With all the high-tech testing and labor intensive evaluating of these players, there is one common objective that all 32 teams have: “Who will help me win games?”  That’s it.  There is no room on the scoreboard for style points or points for “potential”.

How hard can it be?

An NFL Athletic Trainer’s Life During the Off-Season

It’s been 184 days or 6 months since the very first NFL pre-season game when the Chargers hosted the Seahawks on August 11, 2011.  Every week for the past 6 months we’ve had football every weekend ending with one of the most exciting Super Bowl games every played last weekend.

“….Are you ready to miss some football?”

You have to admit it: Coming off a very volatile off-season with “the lockout”, the NFL season proved to be exciting and considered to be a huge success on many levels.  Unfortunately, my Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t have the kind of season we hoped for.  Wait ’til you see us next year….

“What do you do for the next 6 months?”

It’s a common question NFL athletic trainers are asked after the conclusion of every NFL season.  The off-season is a busy time of the year with lots of professional projects on our To Do List.  The end of the season medical issues and the planning for the upcoming season makes for plenty to do during the winter and spring seasons around the country.  As we say in the NFL:  “We have two seasons in the NFL:  One with games and one without.”

Off-Season Projects for an NFL Athletic Training Staff

1.  Finalize end of the season documentation, reports, special tests & medical files.

2.  Complete the rehab of all injured players from the season and end of season surgeries.

3.  Prepare for the NFL Combine for screening potential new NFL players.

4.  Prepare for NFL Free Agency.

5.  Inventory and projected upgrades of medical supplies and equipment to improve all levels of medical care for your organizations.

6.  Medical screening and grading of all new players with team physicians.

7.  Attend multiple sports medicine seminars to maintain state and national medical licenses.

8.  Prepare for and cover all team Mini Camps, team practices, workouts and team functions to help prevent and treat all injuries.

9.  Educate medical staffs, players, football staffs, community youth athletes and anyone who will listen in an effort to help reduce injures and to enhance the health of others.

10.  TBD

Time to Recover

As an NFL athletic trainer and physical therapist, I’ve made a career of taking care of other people’s medical problems.  I love that about my profession and it’s very rewarding to me personally.  This time of the year is also a time for my staff and me to recover from working 7 days per week for over 6 months straight.  My 2 great assistant, Rod Scott & Justin Bland, and I have each had a grand total of two (2) days off since mid-July.

Needless to say, the off-season is an important time for all athletic trainers, team football staffs and players in the NFL to reunite with our devoted wives and children.  Our families deserve this break in the schedule for the loyal sacrifice they’ve made to us and our profession.

A Time of Change in Jacksonville

There is so much excitement in Jacksonville with the many changes within the Jaguars’ organization.  A new owner, a new head coach, about 15 new assistant coaches, a new attitude within the organization and a passionate community that deserves a winning football team at EverBank Field.

I’m thrilled to continue to be a member of the Jaguars’ family as I start my 25th season in the NFL.  I can tell you this:  It won’t take long to prove that these new changes will be making the Jags’ 2012 season something special!

High Ankle Sprain Management in the NFL

New England Patriots’ TE Rob Gronkowski’s ankle sure is getting a great deal of attention as we head into this weekend’s big Super Bowl matchup.  Managing a high ankle sprain is not easy.  Rehabbing a high ankle sprain requires a significant amount of experience.  Managing this injury is a balance of properly stabilizing of the entire lower leg while assessing the athlete’s function prior to the game for optimal results.

First of all, I’m not writing this to specifically comment of Gronkowski’s present injury.  Rob is in great hands with Head Athletic Trainer Jim Whalen and his staff caring for him.  They are a very talented medical staff with a track record of doing a wonderful job of getting high-profile players back for big games.  I’ve worked with Head Coach Bill Belichick early in my career as an assistant athletic trainer/physical therapist for the New York Giants.  Bill is a tough coach who is absolutely loved and respected by his players.

What the Heck is a High Ankle Sprain?

An ankle sprain is considered to be a high or “interosseous” ankle sprain when the ligamentous damage involves the structures above or high to the ankle.  The shin bone is made up of two long bones (the tibia and fibula) which are stabilized between the two by a thick and strong interosseous membrane.

When the ankle is pinned to the ground and excessively rotated in relationship to the shin, the talus bone of the ankle forces the two shin bones to spread apart, much like a wedge would do between two pieces of wood.  The extreme rotational spreading of the lower shin bones tears the interosseous membrane and stabilizing ligaments above the ankle….hence creating a “high ankle sprain”.

Key Steps to Positively Influence an Interosseous Ankle Sprain

During the week(s) leading up to the game, there are some key factors to be considered when rehabbing a high ankle sprain.

Rest – Allowing the interosseous membrane and the stabilizing ligaments to become tighter is the #1 benefit going into the game.  Anything you do that negatively influences that stability of the ankle and distal shin will make the ankle worse.

Walking Boot – It’s simple and smart.  “The Boot” allows the ankle to rest while walk by minimizing the motion, especially the twisting.

Ice, Ice & More Ice – To decrease the swelling and the pain.  Inflammation is not your friend and cryotherapy is the key.  The more acidic blood that pools within healing tissue the longer the healing time.

Pain-free Strengthening – As long as the strengthening is pain-free and doesn’t increase the swelling, it can be performed in a limited range of motion.  I like to use the expression: “If you’re not going to make the athlete better, at least don’t make them worse“.  It’s easy to initiate an aggressive strengthening program for a high ankle sprain heading into an important game.  When it comes to a high ankle sprain, this is usually more to show the coaches that the player is working hard when in reality it may be making the player worse!  Rehabbing smarter not harder is always important with a high ankle sprain.

Factors That Will Impact Your Decision to Play With  a High Ankle Sprain

When determining if a player should play in a game with a high ankle sprain, there are a few key factors that should be considered before the game begins.  This is where an athletic trainer’s experience comes into play and he/she really earns their money.  It’s time to dust off the ol’ crystal ball and show your worth!

Efficient vs Effective – Will the player be able to play 40 plays at 80% speed (efficient) or will he be able to take 15-20 snaps at 95% speed with great power (effective)?

The Super Bowl Factor – Sure, it’s just 1 game with a 4 month Bye starting the day after the game, but will playing in this game with this injury create long-term damage that will negative impact the remainder of his career?

Ability to Play 5 Quarters – I can have a huge influence on getting a player back onto the field but when it comes to how long that player stays on the game, it has more to do with the player himself.  I always get more nervous at the start of the 2nd half of the game with a player with a high ankle sprain.  With an extra long halftime during the Super Bowl and the hype of the game worn off, how stiff and sore will that ankle become walking down the ramp to play 2 or 3 more quarters?

Taping, Orthotics, Shoe Alteration and/or Bracing – No book or seminar or 7 wise men can easily solve these questions. How do I tape a high ankle sprain?  Will orthotics help minimize the rotation of the talus bone effectively? Will higher shoes with more stability help or hurt a skilled position player who needs to change directions quickly?  Should I spat or tape over the shoes or will that put too much pressure on the injury site? So much to think about!

My rule of thumb: It takes lots of experience and 1-on-1 time with just me and the athlete on the practice field later in the week to answer all of these questions.  It takes great listening skills, a sharp eye and trust in each other to do this right.  We try many combos of various tape jobs and ankle postings as he runs his specific football-position drills while he gives me honest feedback.  It’s trial and error times 100.  I know how to influence the body mechanics and pain while the player knows what he needs to do to do his job.  Working together will ultimately create the balance between stability and mobility that allows him to do his job effectively.

Two Minute Warning for Ankle Rehab

Managing a high ankle sprains is stressful but I love it!  Rehabbing this injury successfully truly tests my ability to work with an athlete.  There is no magic pill or brace to get them back in the game.  I’ve developed many strong bonds with athletes rehabbing high ankle sprains and it’s those relationships that make my profession so rewarding.


Concussion Management in the NFL: 2011

Concussions are the hot topic in the NFL, as it is with every level of modern-day athletics.  If an athlete in any sport has an opportunity to have his/her head impacted in any way, chances are that head injuries are a concern.

Sunday night’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles showcased the interaction between one of the game’s most dynamic players and the dreaded “C word”.  Eagles’ QB Michael Vick left the game with a concussion after a blow to the head.  Philly’s Head Athletic Trainer Rick Burkholder and his staff are exceptionally qualified to manage his injury.

Michael Vick is not alone with many of his fellow pro ballplayers suffering from concussions during this new 2011 season.

What is the NFL doing to manage concussions?  Let me show you what the NFL medical staffs are doing to protect our players with concussions.

Appreciating the Seriousness of Head Injuries

First of all, it’s important to stress how serious the NFL views concussions.  The NFL league office and all the individual team medical staffs work extremely hard to learn from leaders within the concussion medical community and utilizing the latest advances in concussion management to protect our athletes.

I’m proud to part of the process that has taken great strides in improving all areas of concussion care for athletes at all levels of athletics.  We clearly understand the responsibility that we have at developing a sound concussion model that will immediately impact the manner in which younger athletes will be treated with concussions.  That role is not taken lightly, nor should it be.

Making the Right Call

Here are some of the key steps that the NFL has implemented over the past two years to improve the prevention and treatment of concussions in the NFL:

  • Mandatory educational concussion seminar and conference calls for NFL medical staffs.
  • The formation of the Head, Neck and Spine Committee that continues research all factors related to head and spine injuries for players in the NFL.
  • On-field rule changes to protect vulnerable players.
  • Reinforced the protective medical philosophy towards concussions: “When in doubt, leave them out”.
  • Mandatory involvement of a neutral concussion specialist before any concussed player is allowed to return to play.
  • In-depth documentation for all head injuries is reinforced for individual clubs.
  • Baseline neuropsychological testing to allow for comparative test after a player has suffered from a concussion.
  • Educational posters, in-services, memos and handouts for players, coaches and medical staffs related to the signs and symptoms of concussions, risks factors and resources for additional information related to concussions.
  • New sideline assessment examination to assist in the testing for any player showing signs of a concussion during a game.
  • Implementing the new Madden Rule, where any player who is diagnosed with a concussion must leave the field and be allowed to relax in the team’s athletic training room and away from the noise of the field.

Caring for Craniums, Young & Old

When it comes to football injuries, concussions have changed the game of football.  Today’s medical community understands that and is continuing to take on the challenges facing the management of this injury.  In my opinion, I think the NFL has done an outstanding job of embracing the role of setting the standard that others are watching closely when it comes to concussion management for our youth.  From all levels of the NFL and our medical affiliations, everyone involved with the care of our athletes is willing to work together to improve all aspects of this medical problem.  From the equipment to the pre-concussion baseline testing to the evaluation of a concussed player to the return-to-play protocol, we all know how important the “big picture” is to the health of an athlete.

Everyone in the sports medicine profession realizes that we have a considerable amount of work to do when it comes to concussions.  With that being said, we’re excited about the wonderful advances still to be made which will better protect our athletes, young and old.


Athletic Trainers Shine in Super Bowl

I just finished watching a great Super Bowl, as I’m sure most of you did as well.  Maybe it’s just me being a “medical guy” but did you notice how many players where hurt during the game?

Pitt’s Bryant McFadden out with a hip injury while Big Ben is limping with a leg injury.  On the other side of the field Green Bay’s DB’s Charles Woodson & Sam Shields are both suffering from shoulder injuries and…..they’re still in the first half!

Injuries are part of all sporting events but when it’s the Grand Daddy of all football games, the pressure is on to stay healthy.  For every play that is missed by a key player, it can literally make the difference between winning and losing the game.  Believe me when I say, that fact is reinforced by everyone on that sidelines in the minds of the medical staffs taking care of those players.

Green Bay Packer’s Head Athletic Trainer Pepper Burruss and Pitt’s Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig are two of the best certified athletic trainers in the country.  Both teams on that field tonight were very lucky to have great medical staffs caring for their needs.

I tip my hat to both Pepper and John for having that many injuries to key players and doing an amazing job getting so many of them back so effectively.  I’ve worked many big playoff games, three divisional championship games and one Super Bowl so I can appreciate the pressure the medical staffs worked under tonight.

Athletic trainers and doctors will probably never get an MVP award but if you ask the players in most locker rooms they will tell you how valuable a caring medical staff is to their careers.