The need for high school athletic trainers temporarily evaporated when sports came to a screeching halt in mid-March following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Like with so many Americans, the past few months have been unprecedented for those who use their medical knowledge to keep athletes safe during competition and help them recover from health-related setbacks.
Athletic trainers are used to a slight break during the summer months, but the nearly three-month layoff between the initial GHSA shutdown and this week’s restriction-laden reopening is uncharted waters. So as sports slowly begin to make a comeback in Georgia, athletic trainers for the schools in Bartow County are prepping for a return to play that could be unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
“I’m definitely concerned when we do start back about the kids who didn’t have access to workouts at home that they’re going to feel the pressure that someone else is further along than them, so they’re going to push themselves [too much],” Adairsville athletic trainer Alyson Worthey said prior to the start of summer workouts. “I do think there is going to be a chance for a higher risk of injury than what we would normally see.”
Worthey is the local athletic trainer most severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, as she has been on furlough from Advance Rehabilitation since March 20. The Central Michigan graduate is slated to come back to work once the Tigers begin helmet-only football practices.
At this point, though, nobody knows when that will be. Worthey hopes the start of summer workouts, which were limited this week to conditioning and weightlifting exercises, means the wheels are in motion for her eventual return.
“I’m definitely ready to get back, and I’m excited,” she said. “I’m hoping that the weight training is the first step in allowing us to have a normal athletic season — even though it probably won’t be what we’re normally used to, at least getting the kids out there.
“I definitely miss being around them. Not necessarily taking care of them, because that is what I do, but just the interaction with the kids, the coaches and the school faculty, as a whole.”
Worthey and her husband moved south from Michigan after she was hired by Advance Rehabilitation in July 2015. Based out of the company’s Adairsville office, she has served as the contracted athletic trainer for the Tigers since her arrival in the Peach State.
Almost exactly a year ago, Worthey went on maternity leave following the birth of her first child and missed the beginning of football season. When she returned, Worthey had to hit the ground running, because there were several athletes who hadn’t felt comfortable discussing their, well, discomfort with other people.
She anticipates a similar influx of patients this time around, as well.
“Definitely my first day back,” Worthey said, “we’ll have a mix of kids who have waited to say something because they are afraid someone is going to pull them and a mix of kids who are just trying to test out the waters.”
Meanwhile, Woodland’s Tamara MacIntyre has been attending football workouts for the Wildcats. She’s encouraged by what she’s seen so far.
“I’m hopeful that since we’re starting as early as we can that we’re going to get on track right off the bat,” MacIntyre said earlier this week. “The kids seem to be responding well to it.”
Cartersville’s Phillip Hardy has the most experience of the local athletic trainers, having spent more than 20 years in the field since earning a bachelor’s degree from Samford and a master’s degree from California University of Pennsylvania. Hardy is also the only local athletic trainer employed directly through their school, allowing him to also teach classes.
Entering the seventh year of his second stint with the Canes, Hardy has complete confidence in the Cartersville coaching staff to handle players the right way during this unique situation. While a timeline on getting football players back into helmets and beyond hasn’t been established, Hardy believes the mentality of the Canes will allow them to rise to the occasion when the time comes.
“When the GHSA says, ‘Let’s go,’” he said, “they’re going to do everything they can to be ready.”
Even if MacIntyre and Hardy are proved right with coaches and athletes, in tandem, taking the necessary measures to avoid a spike in injuries, athletic trainers will be looking at adjusting their procedures moving forward to help lessen the chances of a COVID outbreak.
Regardless of what measures are put in place by the local school systems, the “organized chaos,” as Worthey described it, that occurs in training rooms at the end of each school day will certainly look different. It will likely involve one-on-one meetings and thorough sanitizing. To avoid some of the issues, MacIntyre mentioned trying to do as much work as she can outside.
“We know that things are going to be different,” Cass’ Diana Bell said. “After school, my room — and I’m sure all of the others — are chaotic with everybody trying to be in there. We may have to slow that down and only let so many in our room.
“We just wait on guidelines and what we’re told, and go on that.”
Bell and MacIntyre are employed by Floyd Medical. During the sports shutdown, they were asked to do myriad jobs at different Floyd Medical facilities.
They’re thrilled to be back in their element, even if things aren’t quite as they were when they left.
“Obviously, our role is super important, because we’re kind of communicating with everyone,” MacIntyre said. “We’re kind of that middle person for any injury. We’re always communicating with athletic directors, principals, coaches, weight-training coaches. … Working well with all of them together and a lot of times trying to keep the peace, as well.”
Upon graduating from North Georgia in 2015, MacIntyre spent one year at a physical therapy clinic in Carrollton. She then took a job with Floyd. After spending two years at Model, MacIntyre is entering her second year serving the Wildcats.
“The kids feel like we are a safe place to come to and ask questions,” she said. “If they have issues, they can talk to us. … With us as athletic trainers, there’s no judgement. We’re always here for you to make your life better.”
A 2001 graduate of Cass, Bell spent 2 1/2 years serving her alma mater part time through Georgia Bone and Joint, but after moving over to Floyd, she ended up being assigned to Woodland. Following three years with the Wildcats, the Valdosta State graduate switched over to the Colonels and is now entering the ninth year of her second stint with them.
“As I tell people around me, if I’m bored, everyone is having a good day,” Bell said. “If I’m busy, it’s not so good for some. I enjoy the variety of each day, taking care of our athletes and seeing a lot of these students grow.”
As athletic trainers, being present but never called upon is always the primary goal. It’s unattainable, though, which is why their skill and expertise is crucial to athletes.
“I call us, ‘The team behind the teams,’” Hardy said. “We are in the shadows, taking care of athletes, so that they can perform and win the championships.”