We all just called him “Doc”. Before and after every practice, every game, we would line up outside his office and tape our wrists or ankles. I started this ritual when, as a sophomore in high school, I tore the tendon in my left thumb. A young student named Johnny followed him and he buzzed among us at Friday night games, a belt holding water bottles and tape and scissors hanging around his waist. I once asked him what he wanted to do after high school and he told me flatly he was going to study sports medicine and be a team coach. “Didn’t you ever want to play?” I asked him. “No, this is what I’m interested in.” No hesitation in his voice, no wavering in his gaze. He definitely meant it.
East Ascension High School was no different than any other in the country. There would be tens of thousands of such scenes played out in every corner of North America. At the time, we footballers didn’t really think too much about Johnny’s career prospects. We they wanted to get a scholarship to a Division 1 school and then get drafted by the NFL. That was ours career path ahead. In the end, only about 20% of the team went on to play college football, only three at the Division 1 level, and of all the hundreds of guys I’ve played with or against, only one made it to the NFL. The rest of us ventured into other career options, other sports and moved on with our lives. I lost touch with Johnny and never knew what happened to him. But if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on him getting closer to achieving his dream than any of us ever did to ours.
Studying sports medicine would definitely put him on the right track. Maybe he wanted to work at the high school level or maybe for an NCAA program, but if we assume that Johnny wanted to practice sports medicine at the highest level, he would want to join the medical staff of an NFL team. According to the NFL Physicians Society, each game will include 29 medical experts, both from the side and inside the stadium itself.
The roles involved may surprise you. For example, would you immediately associate the medical staff of an NFL stadium with dentistry? No, I wouldn’t either. But of course if you’re a gamer who’s just had his teeth knocked out, you’d definitely want a dentist on hand. The same applies to the stadium ophthalmologist or radiologist. In fact, of the 29 medical staff on match day, only four are definitely primary care physicians. The rest are highly specialized medical experts; two neurologists, one airway management doctor, two chiropractors, four orthopedists. And these team physicians, for licensed physicians, they are, can earn between $200,000 and $512,500 per year. If they work at an NFL medical facility, it can be more. Of course, like every doctor in the country, NFL doctors must have completed four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, four to five years of residency and usually at least one year of fellowship training.
But what if you’re not a doctor? Are there other positions for nurses, paramedics, physiotherapists? This fact makes it the largest group of medical personnel in the NFL. There are ten athletic trainers in each game, four for each team and two independent.
What is an athletic trainer?
An athletic trainer is a healthcare professional who specializes in sports medicine, rehabilitation care, physical therapy and preventive care. They may have a degree in athletic training, exercise physiology or kinesiology, or may have initially trained as a nurse. before switching to sports medicine as a specialty. Generally, an athletic trainer will have a bachelor’s degree or, more commonly, a master’s degree in nursing and one or more specialties. If Johnny had gone down the road of plying his trade for an NFL team, he would have expected that earn between $75,000 and $100,000 per year.
Like all medical personnel, athletic trainers are required to stay current on their skills, which means regular professional development courses and training are part of the job. They will often work 12-hour days throughout the year and travel with the team throughout the season. And one thing that has changed, for the better, I hasten to add, since my high school days talking to Johnny as a doctor wrapped around his wrist, is that more and more women are working in medical fields.
Perhaps the biggest key indicator for career progression for a sports coach is the projected number of employees. This field is expected to grow by 23% in the next decade and the NFL is only one way out. In addition to each professional sport using its own skills, for example the MLB, NBA and NHL, each of those sports needs personnel at the college and high school level. And outside of team or league jobs, recreation and sports centers, as well as public and private hospitals, also employ athletic trainers. It seems that Johnny’s career plan was certainly healthier than our poke-and-hope approach to making it to the NFL. If I were giving advice to my kid today, I’d tell them to put away their shoulder pads and start focusing on sports medicine.