Tim Bream was taking a rare breather a week or so ago inside his Lasch Building office.
A Penn State grad who first came to campus in 1979, Bream leaned back in his chair – fighting hard to ignore his cell phone as it dinged and dinged – and indulged in a bit of rare reflection.
These days, Bream is Penn State’s director of athletic training services. As such, he oversees a huge pyramid of over 1,000 trainers, students and athletes.
He also is head football athletic trainer, completing a football circle of life in which he takes particular delight. A look around his office with the PSU blue walls tells you what Bream values most – people.
“I spend a lot of time in here with these guys and really get to know them,” said Bream, looking as chiseled as many of his athletes, thanks to 5 a.m. workouts that include steppers, core exercises, riding a bike and even pushing sleds.
“You develop a great relationship with people. Coming back was everything I thought it was going to be – and more. It’s been fun. I love working with the kids.
“My favorite time is when we are taping for practice and games. It’s the interaction with the guys. Even at game time, it’s kind of relaxed. The music is on, they come in, they talk, we keep it light. It’s not ho-de-ho-ho time, but it’s enjoyable. We hear about what’s going on and what the kids are doing.”
In Bream’s office is a photo of his two beautiful daughters, Elizabeth (a Penn State elementary ed student) and Rebecca (an Indiana University grad who works in digital media). A picture of his favorite pro player ever, the Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher as he is being tended to by Bream, hangs on one wall. A photo of his dad Jack is on another.
A miniature New York Jets helmet, signed with a freshly-minted personal message from Christian Hackenberg, is on display. Behind it was a group shot of the 2012 Nittany Lions, the first Penn State football squad Bream worked with since the school’s 1982 national championship season.
As he thought back to his original Penn State roots first established some 37 years ago, Bream chuckled when telling the story about the time he took on Joe Paterno. And won.
Bream’s is an All-American story, of sorts. He came to University Park straight out of Gettysburg High School, having grown up three blocks from McDonald’s in a family of coaches and educators. His grandfather Henry was a player, coach and administrator at Gettysburg College for a half-century. Father Jack was a high school principal at Littlestown High School, and an assistant basketball coach and then fund-raiser at Gettysburg College. His mom Carol taught high school and elementary school phys ed.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into,” says Bream, who’s been in the athletic training business for over four decades, counting high school, through stints at Penn State, Syracuse, Vanderbilt (pre-Franklin), Richmond and then 20 years with the Chicago Bears, before returning to his alma mater in 2012.
The foundation of his career was laid as an undergraduate at Penn State, from 1979 through 1982. For three of his initial four years as a PSU student trainer, he worked with the Nittany Lion football team.
(His only non-football year came as a junior, when he was a trainer – and the first male practice player – with the Lady Lion basketball team.)
“I came in as a freshman in the fall of 1979,” said Bream. “It was awesome. I had a great experience. I knew I wanted to do athletic training when I came here. I was fortunate. I got assigned to football right away. I was so lucky. I had been doing it in high school and loved it. The next year I was assigned to football again and we went to the Fiesta Bowl to play Ohio State. My senior year they appointed me head student trainer for football. I was so fortunate.”
As a senior, Bream was buddies with the likes of Gregg Garrity Sr. and Scott Radecic. Those roots run deep. These days, Bream tends to Garrity’s son, also named Gregg, and he sees Radecic when he returns to campus as a principal with Populous, the sports facility firm.
PATERNO STORY RINGS A BELL
Over Bream’s three seasons with the football team, the Nittany Lions won 29 times against only seven losses. No win was bigger than the 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia – unless you count Bream’s one-on-one meeting with Paterno in the weeks following the game that won the Nittany Lions the national title.
“After my senior year Joe wasn’t going to give the trainers national championship rings, so I asked (head trainer Jim Hochberg) if I could go see him,” Bream recalled.
“OK, sure. Good luck,” Bream says Hochberg told him. “If Joe stays behind the desk you have no chance. If he tells you to sit down at the couch and sits down with you and joins you, you’re going to be OK.’’
So Bream made an appointment to see the head coach in his office at what was then the Greenberg Indoor Sports Complex. Bream did a bunch of figuring, made some notes and off he went to state his case. At first, Paterno didn’t budge.
“This is your education,” Paterno told Bream. “You’re getting three credits for this. You don’t need a ring.”
Bream was ready. “Joe,” he said on behalf of the student trainers. “These are all the hours we put in, from August 3rd to January 3rd. It’s a total of 910 hours. For a three-credit class.”
Bream laughed as he retold the story. “Joe didn’t realize that. He did end up sitting down next to me on the couch. So we talked about a bunch of stuff and by the end he was joking. He was good. He understood. We ended up getting rings.”
WINDY CITY TO HAPPY VALLEY
Bream ended up using his Penn State experience as a launching pad that led to Chicago, where he was from 1993 to 2012. It was also the job from which he had planned to retire one day. Then he heard from Dave Joyner, who Bream knew from his days as a volunteer with U.S. Olympic medical staff, where he worked with Joyner.
When Joyner reconnected with Bream, he was the athletic director at Penn State and Bream was the head trainer with the Bears. Joyner called once, twice, three times. Finally, he offered Bream the chance to return to a valley that was, at the time, not so happy.
Still, for Bream, it was his dream job.
“I did a thing for the Gettysburg Times when I took the Bears job,” Bream recalled. “I said it would be great to go back to Penn State and work some day. I don’t remember saying it, but my dad showed me the clipping.”
Joyner told Bream to be on the lookout for a recruiting call from Penn State’s new head football coach, another NFL guy by the name of Bill O’Brien, over the next two or three days.
“Well, Bill calls me in the next half-hour,” Bream said, “and we hit it off right away.”
Bream returned to campus and set about running not only the football training staff, but the athletic training staff for all of Penn State. He leads a staff of 29 certified athletic trainers — 18 of them full-time, with 11 grad assistants – and is quick to credit his team’s success to a strong group of associate directors. Penn State’s training staff includes upwards to 60 undergraduate students and, in total, Bream’s team attends to over 1,000 students – 900 student-athletes, including 31 varsity teams, as well as two rugby squads, and the dance and cheering squads. His staff also holds a weekly clinic for Blue Band members.
“When people say trainer, they don’t know what we do,” said Bream. “It’s always been my passion, in part because we’re the only allied health professional that takes care of an athlete preventatively, plus provides immediate care and rehabilitation. We go through all of those domains. That’s what’s fun about it – and it’s all for athletes.”
Bream is in an increasingly unique dual role as a trainer, with football, as well as being an administrator. What he likes best, he said, is being hands-on.
“The one thing I learned from Jim Hochberg is that you have to put your hands on the athletes you are working with every day,” Bream said. “Anybody can say, ‘Go get in the whirlpool’ or ‘Get an ice bag.’ But you have to put your hands on them to have an idea of what is going on. That and the Golden Rule. We learned that here. I want to take care of them like I would want my daughters taken care of. You need to keep that in mind.”
These days, the issues that Bream and his team face most with college athletes involve mental health, proper diet and adequate sleep. The basics.
“Our goal is fairly simple, but incredibly complex,” he said. “Give the best possible care to student-athletes, support our coaches in any way we can and educate our students.”
Change has been rapid-fire since Bream returned to campus four years ago. Which, he said, makes his mission as a Penn Stater all the more important: “It’s us. It’s our place. It’s our job to teach that.”
A VIEW TO LIVE FOR
Sixteen-hour days don’t diminish that drive. Or responsibility. Or the appreciation. During 7-on-7 football camp a few weeks ago, Bream was out in the Penn State intramural fields, ostensibly watching the games.
In reality, though, he was admiring the view.
“I took a minute and looked around,” Bream said. “There was Beaver Stadium, the BJC, Holuba, Pegula. Across campus there was Old Main and the law school building was nearby.
“And as I was standing there, there were some student athletic trainers standing beside me. It was a beautiful evening and it hit me. I realized how lucky I was.”