NFL Foundation Partners With Clubs to Expand High Schools' Access to Athletic Trainers

A Nationwide Need for More Athletic Trainers

Athletic trainers bring significant health benefits to student athletes, including lower injury rates, fewer recurring injuries and improved concussion diagnosis, according to a study presented in 2012 at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition.

Unfortunately, financial realities mean many schools do not have access to an athletic trainer.

Nearly two-thirds of high schools lack a full-time athletic trainer, and just under a third have no athletic trainer at all, according to the AT Benchmark Study released by the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) and the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI).

Until recently, Rockford High School outside Minneapolis-St. Paul was one of those schools.

This school year, Amanda Carlen joined the faculty as a full-time athletic trainer.

"In the past, we did have part time coverage, but now it's so wonderful to have someone who is here for the betterment of our kids," said Dan Pratt, Activities Director at Rockford High School.

A Partnership Made It Possible

Amanda's placement at Rockford is funded through an NFL Foundation grant program and the Minnesota Vikings. It is part of a grant matching program spurred by a Chicago Bears initiative in 2013.

That year, the Bears worked to place an athletic trainer at every Chicago Public High School football game. Their initiative set a major movement in motion: a NFL Foundation grant matching program designed to help NFL teams increase access to athletic trainers in their communities was established the following year. NATA and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) have been key partners in the effort.

To date, 22 NFL clubs, including the Vikings, have used these grants to support an estimated 600 schools like Rockford High. Thirteen of these schools are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where nearly 600 football players are now benefitting from the care of athletic trainers like Amanda.

Celebrating Champions of the Cause

The Vikings athletic training staff has been recognized for its role in expanding access to athletic trainers for high school athletes at Minneapolis-St. Paul high schools, including Rockford High School.

In an interview, veteran Vikings Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman recalled his initial attraction to the profession.

"I was exposed to the athletic trainer profession in 7th grade when I was the water boy for the football team, and I met the high school's athletic trainer." Sugarman said. "The profession appealed to me because I loved sports as a kid, I loved to play tennis. I wasn't very good at sports though, but this was a good way to be part of the team. I have a passion for taking care of athletes."

That passion was not short-lived—after working with the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, Sugarman joined the Vikings. He's been with the team over ten years and is excited about the impact the Vikings' grant program is having in the community.

"The response has been remarkable," Sugarman said. "Athletes are going to get injured, but now their injuries are recognized earlier and they're getting the proper care."

He believes the program has a very bright future.

"We've accomplished many goals, and we're showing the importance of athletic trainers," Sugarman said.

An Occupation Often Misunderstood

As medical professionals, athletic trainers can make a critical difference at the moment an injury happens. They're also essential during treatment and recovery, but perhaps most importantly, research shows athletic trainers actually may help athletes avoid injury in the first place.

"A lot of people don't understand what an athletic trainer does. They used to be called 'ankle tapers,'" Sugarman said. "But they're much more than that."

"A certified athletic trainer has many roles, the primary one being injury prevention," Sugarman continued. "Then it's recognition of injuries, [and] being responsible for rehabilitation."

"We work in conjunction with [the] team's medical staff, physicians … It's a team based approach."

A Critical Role At All Levels

"Athletic trainers should be required for all level sports," Sugarman said. "All athletes get injured and need proper care."

"It's essential to have athletic trainers to recognize injuries properly and treat them," he said. "A high school athletic trainer does the same thing I do. Before game they're stretching, evaluating injuries, watching practice, taking care of injuries afterward."

Sugarman believes all high schools should have athletic trainers.

"[At] High schools that don't have athletic trainers, you don't know who is going to take care of the injured athlete," Sugarman said. "Sometimes it's a coach or a parent, but they don't have the training needed to do it properly."

"The athletic trainer's in charge, and if they say they're not fine, they're not going in," Dan Pratt said of the football program at Rockford High School. "The peace of mind that the parent knows that that athletic trainer is there…it's invaluable."

"Athletic trainers are health care providers, they're first responders," Sugarman explained. "If you have a child playing sports wouldn't you want them to have the best care? If that's the case, then you need to have a full time athletic trainer on staff."