A few hours before any Memphis football practice this spring, for a period of about 90 minutes, there’s a good chance you would’ve found athletic trainer Darrell Turner in the training room, with a roll of tape in his hands.
There were 94 players on the Tigers’ spring roster, and coach Mike Norvell requires all of them to have their ankles either taped or braced before every practice or scrimmage. So for Turner and four of his assistants, this means almost every day of spring ball begins with tape.
Lots and lots and lots of tape.
“Five people taping for at least an hour straight,” Turner said.
Athletic tape is so embedded in the daily routine of college football that players and coaches often don’t think twice about it. But for Turner, it is arguably the most important tool of the trade, an incredibly complex and surprisingly costly part of college football that few fans rarely see or understand.
This spring, for example, Turner said the Memphis football program used nine different varieties and four different colors of tape. They used athletic tape on ankles, mostly, but also fingers, toes, feet, knees, wrists and more. They spent more than $4,000 on taping supplies. And they used an average of 226 rolls of tape before every spring practice, totaling 2,441 yards.
That’s the length of more than 24 football fields — for every practice.
Tape plays an important role in preventing injuries, or helping players return to the field quickly. But at a school like Memphis, where the TV money is lacking and the budget is tight, it also provides a window into just how complicated and costly Division I football can be.
“It’s crazy,” Turner said, shaking his head. “People don’t even realize how much goes into it.”
A price worth paying
Senior running back Doroland Dorceus figures he’s been getting his ankles taped as long as he’s been playing football.
“I’ve been wearing tape for so long, it just feels different (without it),” he said. “For me, I feel like my ankles are weak when I don’t have tape on them, because I’ve been getting taped for so long.”
At lower levels of football, however, tape is often about appearance. Aspiring teens think that if they tape their wrists like Adrian Peterson, they can play like him, too. (Or, at the very least, look cooler and tougher in the process.)
At Memphis, Turner said he and his staff try to “eliminate the cool guy stuff.” Taping is about injury prevention, and only injury prevention. More specifically, Memphis’ training staff is, in most cases, trying to prevent the most common version of an ankle sprain, when the toes are pointed downward in what is called “plantar flexion.”
“I’ve heard a number of times where guys got in a bad position, they feel it pull, but then they keep on going because they feel the tape kind of catch,” said Kyle Bowles, a graduate assistant athletic trainer with the football team. “Whereas if they didn’t have the tape, they’re done. Sprained ankle.”
This is why Norvell, who is entering his second season at Memphis, has required every player to be taped or braced at all times. “Just for that support and for precautionary reasons,” he said.
While most coaches talk about this, Turner said, Norvell actually enforces it. Football staffers keep a list of who is taped or braced and who isn’t on a daily basis.
“If a guy rolls his ankle out at practice or gets hurt, Coach wants to know: Was he taped up? Was he good?” Turner said. “He wants to make sure the player did his part to try to stay healthy.”
Linemen, receivers and running backs may also choose to tape their wrists, either to keep sweat off their hands and provide extra support.
“When you’re on the D-Line, you use your hands a lot,” redshirt senior Ernest Suttles said. “You can get your hands caught up and your wrists caught up in the trenches.”
Turner believes strongly in the necessity of taping, as a means of injury prevention. But it also comes at a price.
According to figures provided to The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis football team used 3,171 rolls and 34,149 yards of tape during spring ball — which, if laid out in a straight line, would stretch from Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to Collierville.
Those taping supplies, for 14 spring football practices, cost $4,202.88. Turner estimated that Memphis spent about $28,000 on taping supplies for all of the university’s student-athletes last year.
“We try to buy tape that has research behind it, that resists moisture, that holds its tension longer,” he said. “If you’re going to spend all this money, you’re going to want to put the best tape that holds as tight as long as it possibly can in hopes of preventing injury.”
Preference and superstition
Getting taped has become part of the daily practice routine at Memphis — and many players take it seriously.
Senior Jackson Dillon, for example, has always used the same old-school white tape, made by Johnson & Johnson, 1.5 inches wide and cloth-woven. It’s popular and traditional, what you think of when you think of athletic tape. What makes Dillon unique is that he uses it without foam underwrap, taping straight to the skin.
“I’ve done this my whole life,” he said after one practice this spring. “You’ve got to keep your ankles shaved though. … I think it’s the best way to go. If everyone introduced themselves to it, they’d love it.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Brady Davis gets what he calls “the quarterback special,” a light tape job so his ankles don’t feel restricted. “They wrap 100 times on everybody else,” he said. Senior wide receiver Phil Mayhue also prefers it light. Though, to be honest, he’d probably prefer not to tape his ankles at all.
“I just need a necessary tape job, where I won’t get in trouble,” Mayhue said with a smile.
Dorceus doesn’t know exactly how he gets his ankles taped, but he knows that Turner knows how to do it.
“Darrell knows how to tape my ankles. Not too tight, because I’ve got sensitive feet,” Dorceus said. “He’s been taping me for three years now, so he knows how I like it.”
Turner said he and the rest of his staff usually tape the same players the same way every single day, memorizing their preferences and needs. Some players need a speciality tape job after a previous ankle injury, or prefer one of the nine varieties of tape they use — like Dillon’s old-school Johnson & Johnson tape — over another.
“They’re finicky, too,” Turner said. “You can say they’re superstitious, you can say they’re creatures of habit, whatever they may be.”
Most ankles are taped under the sock, but taping over the shoe, known as “spatting,” comes with its own set of challenges. Because spatting involves covering the shoe’s logo, it is considered a breach of Memphis’ contract with Nike, except in “isolated” incidents “deemed to be a medical expediency,” according to terms of the deal.
Turner and his staff also use different colors of tape are used to match the team’s uniform combinations and must maintain a competitive edge when taping on gamedays, too. And if one ankle is spatted — or one wrist, or one thumb, or anything else that is visible on the field — Turner will tape the other as a means of disguise.
“I don’t want a guy on the bottom of a pile grabbing the only one that’s taped, giving it a nice little twist or yank at the bottom of a pile,” he said.
All of this, Turner said, is what makes the simple act of taping an ankle or wrapping a thumb much more complicated than it may appear.
“There’s a lot to it,” he said. “There really is.”