Health and human development alumni maintain NFL athletes' health

It’s third and eight. Less than two minutes on the clock, the Steelers are down by five, and they have the ball at their opponent’s 42-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger takes the hike, drops back, looks around for an open receiver. Just as he’s about to get sacked, he throws a long ball to Hines Ward. It’s a perfect spiral; aimed right Ward’s outstretched hands. Less than a foot from reaching its target, the ball is tipped by a defender, and bounces out of bounds, trying to escape the disgruntled groan from the home crowd. The crowd’s displeasure grows as a black-and-yellow-clad player remains prone on the field. The game is lost, they think, as they see it’s Roethlisberger who is down for the count.

Suddenly, a man draws the attention of the crowd as he sprints across the field, carrying a toolbox of equipment in one hand. The potential savior of the game, Penn State alumnus John Norwig, is ready for his 15 minutes of on-field fame. The crowd mutters anxiously. Quickly, Norwig’s work is done: Roethlisberger walks off the field and rejoins the game shortly thereafter.

Possibly more unsung than offensive linemen, it is the athletic trainers who keep players on the field, ensuring that they can score or stop that next touchdown. Penn State’s Kinesiology program has trained its share of athletic trainers, many of whom work in the NFL. But what exactly does an athletic trainer do?

“As athletic trainers, we’re obligated to provide the best possible health care to the best athletes of their kind in the world,” said Norwig, who is the head athletic trainer for the Steelers. Athletic trainers maintain the health of athletes by assessing injuries, ensuring a speedy course of rehabilitation and promoting preventive health care through exercises and other practices.

Norwig is one of two Penn State alumni who head up athletic training crews in the NFL, and he is committed to advancing the profession and helping aspiring athletic trainers at Penn State. He was the first head athletic trainer in the NFL to hire a female full-time. He also maintains a strong relationship with Penn State and several universities in Pittsburgh, providing students the opportunity to get hands-on experience at Steelers’ summer camps. Norwig commands a team of two full-time assistants and several student interns, and he works closely with a group of consultants that includes Penn State alumnus James Bradley, brother of Penn State defensive coach Tom Bradley.

Alumnus S. John Miller, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State, said “athletic training is somewhat of a cross between emergency care and physical therapy, in terms of the rehabilitation and prevention that you do. It’s a great way to combine working with people and a love of sports.”

Miller’s father, Sayers “Bud” Miller, started Penn State’s Athletic Training option in Kinesiology in 1975, and the younger Miller was the first to graduate from the option. The summer after graduation, he was working with NFL greats like Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott and legendary coach Bill Walsh. As assistant athletic trainer for the San Francisco 49ers, Miller went to two Super Bowls (XVI and XIX) and one Pro Bowl.

“It was really a great experience for me. Working in the NFL or other professional sports is the pinnacle of athletic training, for many people, and I’m glad I had that chance,” said Miller.

For many athletic trainers, working with people, especially big-name athletes who are constantly in the spotlight, is an incomparable experience.

“The most exciting part of athletic training,” said Penn State alumnus Tim Bream, head athletic trainer for the Bears, “is being able to take care of players. I feel a huge amount of self-satisfaction from serving players, helping prevent injuries, helping rehabilitate them when they do get hurt, and, finally, seeing it all come to fruition on Sundays.”

Working under Bream is Scott Campbell, a 2008 graduate of Penn State's kinesiology program, who is a seasonal trainer for the Bears. Although he’s not employed full-time yet, he still travels with the team. “For me, the most exciting part so far is working with top-notch athletes and doctors,” Campbell said. “Hard work and dedication are important. There are a lot of hours required; you have to put in hard work if you want to make it.”

But working with famous athletes isn’t all fun and games. Chris Fischetti, of the class of 1984, has been a full-time assistant athletic trainer with the Buffalo Bills since 2002. The most challenging aspect of working in the NFL, for him, is meeting the players’ needs while they go about their days. “We don’t always have a block of completely undivided attention. Sometimes they have to study film, talk to the media, or meet with coaches. But we’re still responsible for making sure they’re healthy,” he said.

Will Rogers, a 2005 graduate of Penn State's kinesiology program and an assistant athletic trainer for the San Diego Chargers, agrees that athletes’ personal schedules make the job tough. And then there’s the fact that each trainer is responsible for a large number of players, sometimes up to 15. However, Rogers and Fischetti both are motivated by the thought of getting to rehabilitate injured people. Rogers said “being on sidelines on Sunday or Monday night is an experience unlike any other, with 70,000 people around you, cheering and screaming.”

Penn State’s presence in NFL athletic training has been significant for many years, providing valuable opportunities for both students and alumni. For example, Rogers was a seasonal intern under Bream, earlier in his career; Norwig first gained NFL exposure as a summer camp intern with the 49ers while Miller was there, and connections he made with the 49ers eventually led to his position with the Steelers; and Paul Federici, a 1985 graduate, became head athletic trainer with the Seattle Seahawks after working with Norwig.

At one point in the 1990s, 10 percent of head athletic trainers in the NFL were Penn State alumni. This network provides an opportunity for students to not only know leaders in the field, but to secure internships that provide an invaluable educational experience and the possibility of a job. Kinesiology students this summer worked with a number of teams, including the New England Patriots, the New York Giants, the Bears and the Steelers.

One student, Tony Turchetta, worked with the Steelers as part of an internship, an experience he values for several reasons. “It’s great for undergrads to get their foot in the door of a major organization so early in their career,” he said. The helpful, people-first attitude of the athletic trainers, both with the Steelers and in Department of Kinesiology, is something he also appreciates. “When I left my internship, they told me that if I ever need anything to let them know and they’d help me out. The athletic training faculty here are the same way,” he said.

Students and alumni alike feel indebted to Penn State’s Athletic Training program for the network it has offered them, and for the preparation they’ve received. Fischetti highlights this point well when he says that athletic training in the NFL is “a job that you need to have tremendous commitment to, in order to perform well, which is what we were taught when we were students at Penn State.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010