Since August, local high school football teams have battled for a chance to play in the state championship game. Why did some teams rise to the top and others not? Some say its solid coaching or maybe just plain luck. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. But, for 2 local teams at state this week, they have something else in common – a healthy team.
On any given weekday during football season, you can find Akron Children’s Hospital’s athletic trainers on the field or in training rooms at 14 area schools including Archbishop Hoban High School and Mogadore High School. They’re talking with coaches and staff, tending to injuries, working on rehab plans and listening to players. They’re also making calls, not about formations, but about who’s healthy and ready to play.
“Our goal is to prevent injuries but, like with any sport, it’s not always possible so I spend a lot of time diagnosing, treating and rehabbing players to get them ready for going back on the field,” said Pat Babcock, Akron Children’s athletic trainer for Archbishop Hoban. “It’s not just what I do, it’s really a team approach to keeping these kids healthy – the coaches, strength trainers, the players – everyone has to do their part.”
Steve Lutz, Akron Children’s athletic trainer for Mogadore, agrees. “It’s really a collaborative approach to making sure these kids stay healthy and on the field,” Lutz said. “The coaches start the season by talking to the team about the importance of conditioning, hydrating, proper stretching and technique. They also make sure the guys know they’re not going to get in trouble if they get hurt or need to sit out after a hit…I want these guys to come and talk to me so I can help them and the coaches support that approach.”
Today’s athletic trainers aren’t on the sidelines just passing out bandages and ice packs. They’re hands on. They consult with coaches daily, making recommendations on whether guys are ready for practice; if they can hit; if they need to rest; or, if they need further medical evaluation.
“I’m there with the coaches watching these kids week after week, practice after practice. I get to know the players on a personal level,” said Babcock. “I know when a player is struggling academically or emotionally which can impact how he plays physically on the field.”
Lutz has built a relationship with his players, too. “I know these guys personally, as well their playing style, abilities and weaknesses,” said Lutz. “I notice subtle things like if they’re running differently – maybe it’s because of an injury or just poor technique. I help players identify these types of changes before it leads to an injury or time off the field.”
Since concussions are a common concern among parents, players and staff, the coaches work with players on how to hit – head up, not down – and wrap up an opponent. “If a big hit happens, I can see the player right away and look for symptoms. I immediately ask questions about how they’re feeling and these guys know to be honest because of the seriousness that can come from a head injury,” added Babcock.
Player injuries are, unfortunately, part of the game. But, with a trainer on staff, a player can get rehabilitated properly in the hopes of getting him back on the field rather than sitting out the season or, worse yet, putting him back on the field too soon and worsening the injury.
“Generally players will tell us (Josh Darling, Akron Children’s athletic trainer for Hoban) about an injury before a coach or the rest of the team,” said Babcock. “The Hoban coaches listen to us. Dr. (Joseph) Congeni (director of sports medicine at Akron Children’s) is the team doctor and he supports what we’re doing and saying about players so everyone is on the same page about the health of the team.”
Lutz has backup at Mogadore, too. Michelle Burke, MD, medical director of school health services at Akron Children’s, is their team doctor.
“She’s at every game which is nice because if someone does get hurt, we can determine the severity of the injury right away,” said Lutz. “So rather than having a family make a trip to the ER Friday night for evaluation, a player may be able to just follow-up with Dr. Burke’s office on Monday.”
Not all trainers are the same
There are physical therapists, personal trainers, strength trainers and then there are athletic trainers. Athletic trainers focus on emergency care, injury prevention, clinical diagnosis, therapy and rehabilitation for injuries. They work closely with physicians and can be found on the field or court with the team.
For Lutz, he has Mogadore green in his DNA. He started working with the team as a water boy in 1993 when his dad was a football coach at Mogadore. He went on to be the ball boy, a player on the football team and now he’s back on the sideline as an athletic trainer.
“I have a vested interest in this school and community,” said Lutz. “I would never jeopardize the safety of a player for a game and the parents and coaches know that.”
For Babcock and the Hoban Knights, he feels a sense of pride in his work, too.
“I definitely feel like I’m part of this team,” said Babcock. “When these kids succeed, I feel like I’ve done what I was supposed to do. It’s self-fulfilling to get someone back on the field and help him succeed personally and as a team.”
Mogadore plays Fort Recovery at 3 p.m, Friday, Dec. 4, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus for the Division VII state championship game.
Hoban defeated Toledo Central Catholic on Thursday at Ohio Stadium in Columbus for the Division III state championship. Score: Archbishop Hoban 33, Toledo Central Catholic 20.