They go by a simple three-letter title “Doc,” but their impact and importance to boys and girls athletic teams goes well beyond this short title.
Just as coaches prepare young men and women to succeed and win games on the field, athletic trainers are there preparing them for competition, helping them stay in the game and tending to injuries whenever the need arises.
They may be wearing black polo shirts at Harker Heights during basketball season or weather-appropriate gear during the early portion of the baseball season at Killeen, but there is no offseason for athletic trainers and no understating their importance.
The huge fear
Not going out on their own terms is a common fear — you can even consider it a nightmare for many athletes no matter what sport they play. For Kelsey Belcher, it was a reality.
As a junior in high school, Belcher’s athletic career ended on the soccer pitch after tearing numerous ligaments in an ankle.
But just because her playing days ended did not mean she retired in sports. Belcher was already a student athletic trainer and her background as an athlete led her to pursue a career in sports medicine, including this school year at Killeen High.
“My athletic trainer in high school said, ‘I know you can’t play, but this is a way you can be a part of the team and still help the team,’” Belcher said. “I decided that I wanted to be the person that can help prevent that injury from happening to someone else.”
Belcher’s parents are both in the medical field. Also, she was influenced by athletic trainers and physical therapists while recovering from her injury. So pursing a career in sports medicine and becoming an athletic trainer was where she wanted to go.
Belcher attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota for her undergraduate work, went to grad school at Iowa State and worked with the Cyclones athletic department as the head trainer for softball and soccer. She has also made a stop at Navarro College during her career in athletic training.
Belcher said there’s no point in getting bitter about having a career-ending injury as a junior in high school. It led her to where she is today.
“I kind of already decided where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do,” Belcher said. “I decided to leave my past behind me and go with my athletic training stuff instead of being an athlete.”
Belcher has been a certified athletic trainer for eight seasons and in her first academic year at Killeen she has worked with legendary Killeen High trainer Al “Doc” Wilson, who has shared wisdom from his 55 years in athletic training.
“It’s amazing working with someone who has been in the field as long as he has,” Belcher said. “My choice has been to come in, see how he does things, learn how he has survived and evolved in this profession as long as he has. I’m very fortunate to be able to learn from someone like him.
“You just learn things that books don’t teach you and no one else teaches you other than someone who has been in the field as long as he has.”
It is a never-ending job.
While most only see athletic trainers when an injury calls them onto the field or court, their responsibilities stretch far beyond a game’s time restraints.
Regardless of the season, athletic trainers are kept busy. They are on hand at almost every event, teach classes, train students, travel with the teams and treat players before, during and after games.
Although different sports have different injuries typically associated with them, one of the most common, preventable ailments is muscle sprains.
At Copperas Cove, head athletic trainer Jennifer Simpson also spends time creating daily injury reports for every sport, continually keeping coaches informed about a player’s status.
The long hours and extra efforts do not go unnoticed by Copperas Cove athletic director and head football coach Jack Welch.
“People don’t understand that if we start practice at 7 a.m.,” he said, “they are there at 6 a.m. They’re taping the kids up, helping rehab and take care of everyone. Then, once we finish, they still aren’t finished. They stay after practice doing the same things.
“Then, during the summer, in the heat, they go so far to have everything prepared for heat exhaustion. They’ve got ice buckets and ice whirlpools ready to go.”
During football season, they prepare athletic supplies for not just the Kangaroos but any team playing at Leo Buckley Stadium on Thursday or Friday nights.
“We make sure our water units are ready for anybody that’s playing on the field,” Belcher said. “We put them down there and make sure everything is ready for our practices, our games and any game here at Leo Buckley.”
Times have changed
Since taking over Copperas Cove’s program in 1994, Welch, the Bulldawgs’ longtime head coach, has seen plenty of changes. He has witnessed the innovation of new formations, viewed once unheard of technologies become part of everyday life and watched sports evolve at an incomprehensible rate.
But one thing still baffles him.
“I don’t see how people got away with not having a trainer on staff back in my day,” said Welch, who began his coaching career in 1979.
Just like before the spread offense or email became common, trainers used to be unnecessary to most programs. Now, they are vital.
While coaches are often trained in how to treat injuries or deal with life-threatening situations, modern trainers are highly specialized medical experts capable of doing far more than simply wrapping an ankle or stopping a bloody nose.
Athletic trainers have invaluable knowledge from years of research and certification that gives them the ability to not only diagnose and treat, but to determine the subtle difference between being hurt and injured.
After seeing the skills athletic trainers bring to the table, Welch, who survived for years without them, now views trainers as indispensable pieces of his staff.
“You can’t put a value on them,” he said. “I never question them when they tell me somebody is out. They understand the importance of the game, they know that kid wants to play, they know I want the kid to play and their team needs them to play, but they know what is best based on medical knowledge.
“So, I will never question them.”
A trainer’s son
Andy Wilson, 48, said, according to his parents, he went to a softball game when he was 2 days old.
He taped his first ankle when he was in the sixth grade.
And as a student at Killeen, he worked under his father, Doc, for the first of two times as a student trainer.
That was life as the son of Doc Wilson, now age 76.
Andy, now the head athletic trainer at Harker Heights — a position he has occupied since the school opened in 2000 — said there was never a doubt in his mind that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Not just because he enjoyed being around sports but also because, for him, the job also was about being around family.
“My boys grew up being on the sideline,” Andy said. “I guess you could say that I saw the need.
“I enjoyed doing that growing up around sports, and it was something that I thought I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Angelo State, Andy was the head trainer at Copperas Cove before going to Killeen to work under his father again, this time as an assistant trainer, then later moving on to the head trainer position at Harker Heights.
And while Andy said he still enjoys the people, the fact is the position has changed significantly since he taped that first ankle in middle school.
Schools and athletic programs continue to grow, as do the number of sports they offer.
Trainers can’t spend the same amount of time with each individual student that they used to, Andy said, but he still enjoys his job and is regularly reminded why.
“Watching a kid that has been sidelined and fully rehabbed and then finally returns to play, doing what that kid loves, that’s what makes it worthwhile,” Andy said. “And sometimes that takes two, three, four, 10, 15 years before you realize that because that’s when they walk back in that door and they come to see you. They’re back in town, and they say, ‘Hey Doc, I appreciate what you did.’