It’s Sunday afternoon and a crisp autumn chill has settled over the field at MetLife Stadium. With 10 minutes to go until kickoff, a pop song echoes through the jumbo-tron speakers, dozens of television reporters and photographers frenetically bustle around the sidelines, and the quiet roar of 82,000 eager fans sweeps through the air. William Paterson University Professor of Kinesiology Dr. Robb Rehberg stands mid-field, takes in the sights and sounds, and then heads to his post high above the action.
An Athletic Trainer Certified (ATC) spotter for the NFL, Rehberg is responsible for the well-being of some of the best athletes in the nation playing one of the most dangerous sports in the world. From his booth atop MetLife, he is charged with spotting potential injuries on the field – mainly of the head and neck – and alerting medical personnel on the ground. If a player is obviously disoriented and attempting to remain in the game, Rehberg can go so far as to have the head referee stop the game to ensure the athlete is safely removed and evaluated by medical staff.
“It’s really a split-second decision,” Rehberg says. “As calm as I am in emergency situations, and I usually stay calm, we have a big responsibility to make the right call at the right time. If we decide that stopping a game is necessary, we must have certainly done it for the right reason. You don’t want to influence the outcome of the game … so you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach right before every game starts. But whether you’re playing on the field or working in the booth, once that game begins, you just jump into action.”
ATC spotters can watch both the live action game and the network broadcast from their booths, where they have their own video technician to replay footage on command, from various angles, for immediate review. When an injury concern appears validated via replay, ATC spotters have the in-booth technician log and label the associated video clip, and send it to a sideline monitor for physician or athletic trainer review.
“One of the things I found interesting, after all my years of working in football, is that I never thought: When you work as an athletic trainer on the sideline, you see one perspective and perhaps one injury. But as an ATC spotter, you have several views as well as replay, and depending on the play, you can have multiple players injured at once,” Rehberg says.
The NFL instituted an injury review system near the end of the 2011 season after Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took a helmet-to-helmet hit and was sent back to the game without being tested for a concussion. The team’s athletic trainers didn’t see the hit because they were busy tending to other players. After the game, McCoy was diagnosed with a concussion.
ATC spotters were subsequently added to the NFL roster to serve as another set of more-focused eyes, far from the hubbub of the sidelines. Whereas one ATC spotter at a time previously worked each game, this season, the NFL changed its protocol to have two spotters in the booth. That change created an opportunity for Rehberg, which he more than happily accepted. He has been assigned to NY Jets home games.
On game days, he and his co-spotter arrive at the stadium three hours before kickoff. They have meetings with both teams’ medical staffs, they meet with the head referee and test the booth-to-referee radio system; and they run tests on the equipment of the video technician in the booth. Rehberg has never had a game that didn’t involve logging at least a few prospective injuries, and though he has had to call down to the sideline medical staff a few times, his crew hasn’t yet needed to stop a game altogether this season.
Rehberg – who played football for a decade and spent years as a high school athletic trainer, youth football coach and emergency medical services chief prior to becoming a professor – has always had a strong interest in concussion management and athlete safety. He was one of the first athletic trainers in New Jersey to work in a hospital-based concussion program at Overlook Medical Center – one of the largest of its kind in the area. He is also co-founder and president of Sport Safety International, which is dedicated to promoting safe participation in sport and physical activities through education. In the past six years, Sport Safety International has provided free online courses to roughly half a million people spanning 52 countries.
“Going into this, I knew a lot regarding the scrutiny of the NFL, about whether or not they do everything they can to keep athletes as healthy and safe as possible,” Rehberg says. “One of the things I can say from my perspective is that the NFL is doing everything it can, and using athletic trainers as spotters has the ability to make a big difference. I’m really excited to be a part of that.”
“As an athletic trainer, when it comes to watching for mechanisms of injury – with my students, we frequently go over videos about mechanisms that lead to injury – when that’s what you do for a living, getting to use those skills and abilities at the highest level is very exciting. I feel really fortunate to have been chosen for this program,” Rehberg says. “Football means a lot to me. I think it’s a great sport, and I think there are ways we can make it safer.”