After a work day that lasted almost 12 hours and began before the sun rose above the campus of Missouri Western State University—home of Kansas City Chiefs training camp—assistant athletic trainer Tiffany Morton walks into the campus cafeteria on this Sunday night knowing she’s going to have to sit and talk about herself for a while.
As Morton sits down at the round table just a few feet from a large group of staff members finishing up their dinner, it doesn’t take long to see that self-promotion isn’t near the top of her character traits.
She listens to the final few seconds of her mentor—head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder—talking about what has impressed him of her over the past few months, and she appears almost uncomfortable to hear such praise in this way.
Morton doesn’t want the attention of being the first full-time female athletic trainer in franchise history, or the fact that she’s one of only five full-time female athletic trainers in the NFL.
She’d rather just be known for her ability to take care of athletes—just like any other athletic trainer, but the truth is there’s a story here, and she’s right at the center of it.
Morton’s passion for athletic training is one that originated from, of all things, a personality test she took in college.
While attending Auburn University, Morton initially pursued the path of becoming a doctor and going to medical school—something she had dreamed about from the time she was in grade school.
After struggling through a chemistry class and subsequently losing that drive to pursue medical school, Morton’s career path took a turn thanks to a career counselor suggesting a personality test.
The test pointed her in the direction of athletic training.
It cultivates a similar passion in that she’s helping people through sports medicine, and now, years later and in less than five months as a full-time employee with the Chiefs, Morton has already impressed those around her.
“I think for starters, to be a woman and to be in a male-dominate atmosphere, she handles herself really well,” Jeremy Maclin, the franchise’s standout receiver, recently said. “I think as far as what goes on in the training room and her knowledge of the body and everything, she’s exceptional.
“If she doesn’t know something, she’s going to find out what it is and what she needs to do to help me get better.”
Morton has become Maclin’s “go-to” athletic trainer.
They have a routine before and after every practice or workout, which developed during her time as an intern.
It’s not unusual for players to have certain athletic trainers they develop these routines with, but a comment Maclin made last spring to Burkholder in front of Morton stayed with her.
They were going through their usual pre-workout routine one day and Burkholder came over to where they were working, and Maclin harmlessly said, “Rick, when are you going to hire her?”
It wasn’t said to put Burkholder on the spot, but rather, it was to show him how he felt about the work Morton had been doing.
There weren’t any spots open on the staff at that time, but the message resonated and stayed with Morton, who was mortified that Burkholder may have thought she put Maclin up to it. That wasn’t the case, but in her mind, she was validated that day.
“That alone was probably the biggest compliment from anybody so far,” Morton explained. “Having somebody that you work with take notice and appreciate what you’re doing—it was a huge point of validation.
“You have that moment. You take it in and you’re like, I’m doing something right. I have a lot to work on, but I’m doing something right.”
A few weeks later, when a spot did open up and Morton was hired, few in that locker room were as happy for her as Maclin.
“Of course I was happy, and I did say something to Rick (that day),” Maclin recalled. “You want that type of person on your staff, somebody to be here who is trying to perfect their craft, and I think she is definitely trying to do that.”
The search for perfection was instilled in Morton by her family, and most notably, by her father, who retired before she graduated high school after finishing 20 years of service in the Army.
Much like any other military family, there was constant change and the need to adapt.
Morton was born in Germany but then moved to Colorado, then back to Germany and Italy before coming back to Colorado again. She considers Colorado her home because that’s where she went to high school, but she doesn’t have any family or ties to the area.
Midway through Morton’s senior year of high school, her mom took a civilian job with the Air Force as an auditor, but the job was in Japan.
Another huge change, another opportunity to adapt.
Morton’s dad stayed with her in Colorado until she graduated, and then he left to join his wife in Japan.
Neither of Morton’s parents have lived in the continental United States since she graduated high school. They did spend some time living in Hawaii.
Two of her three brothers are in the military and have had deployments overseas, although they are back stateside now along with her other brother who currently lives in Florida.
Morton got her undergrad from Auburn University in exercise science because they didn’t have an athletic training program. She then went to Florida International University because they had an entry-level Master’s program that caught her eye, and she also happened to like Miami after visiting there a few times.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions she ever made.
Morton immediately began working as a student athletic trainer with the football program at FIU, and that’s when she knew football is where she wanted to be.
It didn’t take long for those around her to notice the drive and determination she had to be successful.
While at FIU, Morton attended an athletic training conference on concussions, and one of the keynote speakers that day was Burkholder.
After he finished speaking, Burkholder was approached—like he is oftentimes—by a student with some questions.
“I’m pretty good in those situations recognizing who is asking the right questions,” Burkholder explained of his first encounter with Morton. “How they handle themselves and all of that, and I know the two gals that run that curriculum and I asked them about [Morton] after our conversation because I was impressed, and they told me she was a star.”
That’s how Morton was put on the radar of one of the most prominent athletic trainers in the business. She asked the right questions.
Burkholder is the president of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS). Three of his former assistants and an intern are now head athletic trainers across the NFL.
Simply put, Burkholder is the right guy to know, and in this line of work, he’s is the right guy to work for.
Upon getting her Master’s degree from FIU, Morton still hadn’t yet cracked into the NFL despite putting out résumés and applying for a few different internships.
She accepted a job working at Southridge High School in Miami—a football powerhouse that has produced more than 15 NFL players.
“It was one of the best things for me to do,” Morton explained. “It created an independent atmosphere and allowed me to grow as an athletic trainer.”
When an internship opened up with the Minnesota Vikings last summer, it was her preceptors and colleagues back at FIU that pushed for Morton to be considered.
“They literally put themselves out on the line for me,” she explained. “They basically said, ‘You’re dumb if you don’t hire her.’
“It blew me way to get that kind of support.”
Morton got the summer internship with the Vikings under their head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, who happened to have spent six years with the Philadelphia Eagles (2000-06) under Burkholder as one of his assistants.
When Burkholder needed a seasonal intern, which is the second step of the three-step process he uses to hire his full-time athletic trainers, he called his old friend Sugarman, who had an intern in Morton he remembered from that conference back at FIU.
Burkholder says he likes to create a farm system. It starts with a summer internship, and then he hires two of them as yearlong seasonal interns, and the third and final step is a full-time position wherever there might be a spot—although not always with him.
He likes to have all three of those progressions be with the Chiefs, but Morton was an exception—she had been with a former assistant of his and he was looking for a talented female to join his staff.
“I wanted the best athletic trainer and I was hoping that it was a female because we’re trying to promote that in the National Football League,” he explained. “It’s an interesting time in athletic training. We have a lot of female athletic trainers, but not a lot in the NFL.
“So as president (of PFATS), I try to open those doors, but I’ve got to make the best hire possible. I can’t hire the one that fails. There’s no margin for error because everyone in our world is just waiting for one of them to screw up.”
While Morton didn’t expect it to necessarily lead to a full-time job when she accepted the seasonal position, she knew what this could do for her career.
“This was a big opportunity,” she explained. “I’m going there to learn from the best (in Burkholder), no matter what happens, I have the opportunity to learn from one of the best.”
Morton started her year-long seasonal internship right after the team’s second preseason game last August, and it wasn’t long after that conversation and validation from Maclin in front of Burkholder that she was given an opportunity to interview for an open position.
She met with head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey about the open position, and then just had to wait for the news, as she knew she was one of the two finalists.
Every time the door opened to the training room, Morton, who was still an intern at the time, thought that was the day Dorsey would come through the door and tell her she didn’t get the job.
That was until one day, when Dorsey walked into the training room and went straight into Burkholder’s office, and then a few minutes later, she heard his voice.
“’Intern, come in here,’” Morton recalled of what Dorsey had said. “I used to laugh at it because I remember the first time he called me that, I told myself I’m not going to say anything to him because one day he’s going to know my name.”
After the usual dialogue that takes place when anyone is being told whether or not they got a particular job, Morton was given the good news.
“Listen, I rarely have girly moments,” she laughed. “I rarely have them, but that was a total girly time. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Are you serious?’ I probably said ‘Are you serious?’ five times.
“Then I did a jig. I said I’m so sorry, but I did a dance—a little twirl.”
During the interview process, Morton had blown away everyone. They were somewhat familiar with her because she had been there working as an intern, but they didn’t know just how well she carried herself until that point.
“From my standpoint, I got it,” Reid explained of bringing her on as a full-time athletic trainer. “[Burkholder] didn’t have to tell me twice. I knew what he wanted to do, and he did it.
“When I met with Tiffany, she’s sharp. She’s a sharp girl and she knows her stuff. She’s good with the players.”
There was a certain dynamic that had to be addressed with bringing in a female athletic trainer, and it’s one that Burkholder was not only aware of, but specifically looking for.
“She has been everything we’ve asked because she’s very intelligent,” Burkholder added. “We don’t treat her like a female. We treat her like an athletic trainer, and that’s what she wants.”
After meeting her at a conference years ago in Miami, the impression Morton made by asking the right questions stuck with Burkholder and helped lead her to a full-time position at the highest level of football in the world just a few years later.
Burkholder admits that he’s probably more worried about the dynamics and logistics of having a female around a male-dominated locker room and training room than Morton, but he’s been impressed with how easily she’s handled everything.
“She’s like, ‘Don’t keep me from doing a job just because I’m a female,’” Burkholder explained of Morton’s message back to him. “If I can’t do the job because I’m not a good athletic trainer, that’s one thing, but don’t do it because I’m a female.”
“She was not going to be segregated,” Burkholder added. “She just wants to take care of athletes. She wants to help get them better, and she’s very, very good at it. Now, she’s young and she’s growing, but she’s going to be a part of this Chiefs family for years to come.”
The transition to a full-time position has been easy for Morton.
“Nobody batted an eye,” she explained. “So quite honestly, it’s been great. The responsibilities picked up and other than that, I still grind and do my work and take care of the guys. Honestly, I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky to end up with a great team.”
That team right now is comprised of Burkholder and Morton, as well as full-time assistants Aaron Borgmann, David Glover and Evan Craft, along with the seven summer interns.
It’s a close-knit group, which is never more evident than during the down time after a practice or a workout in the training room.
“It’s almost like a big family time,” she explained. “Everybody’s working on somebody. The players aren’t necessarily injured but there’s just some bumps and bruises they want to get taken care of. There’s music playing. We’re all interacting with each other. It’s the culmination of all the hard work.
“It’s nice to see how we all function as a family. I hear of people trying to deal with divas or guys that don’t mesh well, and the Chiefs really don’t have that.”
While her focus is on doing the job to the best of her abilities and to continue learning from Burkholder and the other athletic trainers in the room, the magnitude of what she’s accomplished—while not often in the front of her mind—isn’t lost on her.
At a recent conference, Morton had a lady come up to her and express what it means to see her in this position—one of five female athletic trainers in the NFL.
“She’s like, ‘You have no idea what this means to us,’” Morton recalled of that conversation. “Honestly, I’m so busy trying to just be a good athletic trainer that I should remember sometimes that I’m a female in the NFL because a lot of females who wanted to work in the NFL 10 years ago, or even five years ago—they didn’t have the opportunity.
“Now with incoming females, I do want to be a good role model, but even more than that, I want to make sure they understand that you can still be you and work in the NFL.”
With more than 54 percent of the overall work force in the athletic training field being female, but less than one percent in the NFL right now, the trends are going to change over the next five to 10 years. Burkholder, Morton and company are working towards being a part of that change.
Morton’s long-term goal is to be a head athletic trainer somewhere, but for right now, she’s focused on the task at hand.
“My short-term goal this year is to prove they made the right decision to hire me.”
Due to the simple fact that there’s only five women in the world who could currently make that statement, the idea of Morton being somewhat of a pioneer is more realistic than she’d probably care to admit.
Although she would be the last to tell you that, which is why she was the perfect choice.