By the time Leander Walker slides his key into the door of Yukon’s athletic training facility, nearly a dozen athletes are already waiting to get in.
It’s 2 p.m. on Tuesday, and Walker just finished teaching three periods of a medical professions class. But his work day is really just beginning.
Walker is one of three athletic trainers on staff at Yukon High School. That’s an inordinately high number compared to schools around the state. A few others have three, some have two. Most don’t have one at all.
Yukon has more than 900 high school athletes this year, so when you weigh that ratio, it’s stacked heavily against Walker and his crew, which includes full-timers Dain Foster and Emilie Shannon.
Of the 11 athletes at Walker’s door, four sports are represented — including soccer, which isn’t even in season. But a player suffered a concussion with his club team and Walker has been overseeing his return to the classroom, and then the field.
Some of the athletes are seeing Walker for the first time with a new injury, some are just stopping in for a checkup. Others are doing rehabilitation therapy for more serious injuries. A couple of them are coming back from recent surgeries.
Oh, you thought athletic trainers taped ankles and filled water bottles all day?
Welcome to the life of an athletic trainer.
It’s the title that throws people off.
Certified athletic trainer, often shortened to just “trainer.”
The misconceptions run rampant about what athletic trainers actually are.
No, they’re not handing out water bottles at football games.
Yes, they’ll tape ankles, but “taping is about 1 percent of this job,” Walker says.
No, they won’t develop a personal workout program for you.
“What gym do you work at,” Foster jokes, imitating those who misunderstand the difference between an athletic trainer and a personal trainer.
And no, they’re not coaches. Walker played football and knows the game, but Yukon coach Brian Sauser won’t be asking his advice for beating a two-deep zone defense.
“We’re health care professionals,” Walker says.
This is the second and final week of the Oklahoma Athletic Trainers’ Association Safety in Football campaign, a statewide initiative geared toward educating the public, coaches and athletes about what athletic trainers are and the services they provide to athletes.
When Yukon faces Southmoore at 7 p.m. Friday, each team will be wearing an OATA logo sticker on the back of their helmets as part of the campaign. Several teams wore them last week as well.
Education is at the forefront of the industry right now.
They’re educating coaches on how to better recognize and react to certain injuries.
They’re educating athletes and parents on the wide array of injuries they can handle, how they work in conjunction with doctors on treatment plans and how they can save the families money on unnecessary medical bills because of the evaluations and treatments they can provide.
Athletic trainers want their schools to take full advantage of their services to see the scope of the value they provide.
And they want other schools to see the value, too, so those schools without an athletic trainer on staff will make the move toward adding one.
Oklahoma’s percentage of schools with an athletic trainer continually ranks at the bottom of the list nationally.
According to a study by the Korey Stringer Institute and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, 119 Oklahoma high schools have either a full-time or part-time athletic trainer on staff.
The OSSAA has 480 member high schools. When you add non-OSSAA schools, the total number jumps above 500, meaning barely more than 20 percent of the schools in the state employ a trainer.
Tight budgets might prevent some schools from adding the position, but once they do, they seem to find the money to keep it.
“You never hear of an athletic trainer position going away,” Walker says. “That’s the reason we have three here now. Yukon sees the value we provide the students.”
Walker opened his door at 2 p.m. and by 2:30, he is surrounded by athletes being evaluated, working on their rehab or waiting for their turn to be checked out.
The room is tucked in the corner of Yukon’s gigantic, multifaceted football facility. The athletic training room has four training tables, one large taping table, racks of crutches hanging on the far wall next to a whirlpool. The back of the room has a kitchen area with a refrigerator, a large ice machine, a sink and plenty of storage.
Scattered around are various other treatment devices: a small trampoline, weighted balls and stretching bands among them. A small set of stairs leads to a pool, which is currently out of service.
Walker’s first round of athletes has several football players, some awaiting clearance to go to Tuesday’s practice. Yet the group includes members of the cheer and dance teams, cross-country runners, a couple soccer players and a basketball player.
The softball team is playing a road game, or Walker figures he would’ve seen a couple of them come through, too.
“By the end of the day, the coaches will get a full report on everyone we see,” Walker says.
Two athletes are going through the concussion protocol. New laws go into effect Nov. 1 that dictate concussion management and treatment, but Walker and his staff have been abiding by similar nationally recommended guidelines for months.
One of the athletes is still early in his concussion treatment program, gradually increasing his level of physical activity.
Shortly after he arrives, Walker sends the athlete out to run sprints, the next step in his treatment. He returns not long after.
“It was just a stinging pain in my head,” the athlete reports.
His return to the field will have to wait a little longer.
At 3:30, Walker heads down to the football field. Several athletes are still working on rehab, but with Foster and Shannon there to oversee it, Walker has the flexibility to go down and monitor practice.
Within minutes, a player with a sore ankle stops him on the sideline. Another with a banged-up elbow trots across the field to be checked.
Injuries aren’t the only thing Walker has to keep an eye out for. He has players with asthma, sickle-cell trait and other conditions that could impact them on the field.
Last year, a basketball player showed up with an odd set of symptoms. Foster and Walker consulted on it and determined they believed the player had a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. If gone undiagnosed, it could’ve caused serious kidney damage and possibly turned into a life-threatening situation.
Walker, Foster and Shannon are all teachers, though that’s not the case with all athletic trainers at the high school level. Several solely serve as full-time athletic trainers.
Walker oversees a group of 20 student aides, all of whom are CPR and first-aid certified. And they have an assistant from Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford who stops in to help a couple times a week.
At 4:45 p.m., Walker returns to the athletic training room and the crew is starting to scatter. Foster will be working a home volleyball match on Tuesday night, while Shannon will soon be heading to the middle school for football games.
The athletes have mostly cleared out, too, except for a couple of guys still rehabbing knee injuries.
Walker sits at his laptop. “Now we spend a while doing notes on everyone we saw today,” he says.
He has a small office with a desk in the back corner of the facility, but he’s hardly been in there all day. At 5:07 p.m., he opens the office door to grab something and notices his uneaten lunch still sitting on the desk.
“That doesn’t usually happen,” he says as he slides the plate in the refrigerator.
A few minutes later, Walker’s phone buzzes. Lightning has been detected within a 10-mile radius of the football stadium. Time to shut down practice.
By the time he comes back into the facility, his student aides are already cleaning up for the day. Within 20 minutes, they’ve finished and are heading out the door.
At 5:39 p.m., the last two athletes of the day show up. One with knee pain and one with a headache. Walker checks them both and gives them further instructions.
He turns off the light and closes the door on what he typified as a slow day: 20 athletes from six different sports, not counting the athletes who only had a joint needing ice or a question needing answered.
Thanks to the lightning, it was a short day, too. In less than four hours, he and his staff treated injuries — literally — from heads to toes.
“What you’re looking for as a coach is not having to worry about the stuff that they handle,” Sauser says of the athletic training staff. “It’s amazing on a day-to-day basis how much they just take care of. It’s such an easy resource to use that we probably take it for granted a little bit.
“When you look at our school district putting in the infrastructure within this facility, and then allowing us to have three athletic trainers, our kids are getting the best possible care that they could get anywhere for any type of injury.”