Football is a tough sport.
A certain amount of macho is all but a requirement within the game.
Playing hurt, toughing it out in silence, is revered.
What if something’s really wrong, though?
“They might not tell their mom their ankle’s hurting, but they’ll tell Terry,” Kim Moore said.
The March observance of National Athletic Trainers’ Association month holds special significance for Moore. The association’s theme of “Who’s Taking Care of Your Kids?” hit home in a way she will never forget two years ago.
Ryan Moore was a promising senior linebacker at Heritage High School the fall of 2005 when his heart began racing during a preseason practice. It had happened during summer baseball camp the year before, but he’d kept it to himself.
“I never wanted to be one of those kids always in the training room,” Ryan said. “You know, those whinny guys.”
When his heart again soared above 170 beats per minute, Ryan decided to inform Heritage athletic trainer Terry Byrd.
“I was just standing around and felt my heart going crazy,” he said. “I reached up under my jersey and said, ‘Oh, No! Not again.’”
Byrd, a certified athletic trainer with Appalachian Therapy Center, reacted quickly. He moved Ryan indoors, applied ice and elevated his feet to slow his pulse. Later, Ryan was allowed to return to practice with no contact, but Byrd didn’t stop there.
During the stay in the training room, Ryan told Byrd about the previous incident. Early the next morning, Byrd got on the phone with Kim and Robert Moore, Ryan’s parents.
“I didn’t know he was going to do that,” Ryan said.
Heat hadn’t caused Ryan’s heart to race, Byrd said. Neither had exhaustion.
Practice had just begun.
This could be serious, and Byrd wanted the Moores to take every precaution.
“I said, ‘I’ll be honest with you, because there wasn’t much cause for that to happen, you might want to get him checked out,’” Byrd said.
Four days later, Ryan underwent the first of two lengthy surgeries — one a pioneering procedure bordering on science fiction — that likely saved his life. Kim Moore still shudders when she thinks what one more hit, had Byrd not been there, had he not phoned the next morning to follow up, could have done.
“Teenagers pass stuff off as nothing,” Kim Moore said, “but you had a professional in the medical field that said, ‘This could be a problem.’ I’m just glad Terry was there.”
Ryan would be diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a rare cardiac arrhythmia caused by extra bundle of electrical conductive tissue within his heart. The first procedure to correct the problem lasted six hours. Afterward, the Moores would learn Ryan’s condition was worse than they thought.
“When (the doctor) walked down the hall and didn’t make eye contact, we knew something was wrong,” Kim Moore said.
When the first surgery proved unsuccessful, Ryan was transferred to the Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where Dr. Warren Jackman performed a pioneering procedure involving a global positioning system beneath the operating table, computers, magnets and a joystick to fix the problem. The surgery was the first of its kind in the United States. It took 12 hours, but it was a complete success.
The last procedure, taking place in November, cost Ryan his senior football season, but by spring he was back on the baseball diamond.
Today, Ryan is a sophomore and history major at the University of Tennessee. He’s a manager for the men’s track team and hopes to one day be a coach. He recently had his last check up with his doctor and was given a clean bill of health.
“The doctor said, ‘I never want to see you again. You’re good to go,’” Ryan said.
Ryan’s case is extreme, but the job done by athletic trainers at each of Blount County’s four high schools is “just incredible,” David Douglas said.
“Basically, therapy when I was in high school was go into the training room and get some ice and put it on your ankle,” he said.
Douglas’ son, Aaron, was the state’s top-rated football prospect this past season. The Maryville High School senior and University of Tennessee signee collected his second consecutive Mr. Football award in December. Later the same week, he helped the Rebels to their fourth consecutive state championship, winning the school’s 60th consecutive game in the process.
Douglas, a ripped, 6-foot-6 tight end, is the very image of a football player. He’s also not immune to the game’s hard knocks. The future Vol, as did many of his Maryville teammates, played the entire season with injury. He had surgeries last month to repair a shoulder injury. The two-sport star played the entire basketball season with a bone chip in his heel.
Aaron never complained and he and wife Karla never worried, David said, partly because, whenever Aaron was at practice or a game, he was under the watchful eye of certified athletic trainer and Appalachian Therapy Center owner Joe Black, Byrd’s boss. “They know the ones that are toughing it out and fighting through injuries, and they say, ‘Hey, why don’t you let them rest,’” Karla Douglas said.
Karla, a former Tennessee Lady Vol basketball player, said the athletic training staff at her high school consisted of the assistant coach. She taped all the ankles. When Karla sprained an ankle, the assistant coach brought out a bucket of ice and “held it in there” as treatment.
The level of care now afforded her son and other area athletes by certified athletic trainers goes a long way toward putting a parent’s mind at ease, Karla said.
“To know on Saturday morning they’d be able to go in there and get an ice and stem and get some relief, that’s huge,” she said.
The role of athletic trainers in caring for area middle and high school athletes goes well beyond simply medical care, though. Peggy Bratt is more than an athletic trainer at Alcoa High School, Mike and Jan Coulter said. She’s part of the family — for every player.
“Without her, I don’t know where we’d be,” Jan said. “We love Peggy Bratt. She’s so much more than a trainer.
“She checks up on how they’re doing in the classroom. She knows when something’s bothering them. I’ve seen her take football helmets away and hide them (from players) on Friday nights if they’ve got a concussion. I’ve seen her personally take kids from practice to the hospital.
“She’s a lot more than an athletic trainer to us.”
Like all athletic trainers that work with Blount County high school athletes, including those from Blount Memorial Hospital that staff Maryville Christian School sporting events, Bratt holds an undergraduate degree and is board certified. Her level of knowledge and skill is astounding sometimes, Mike Coulter said. Compared to his prep playing days, the peace of mind Bratt and her colleagues provide is light years ahead.
“I was there in the ’70s when there were no (athletic) trainers, and water breaks depended on the day,” Mike said. “Somebody taped you. You ran until you dropped, and, if you got hurt, you went to the doctor.”
When an Alcoa player is injured, as happened with each of his sons, Brad and Seth, Mike said Bratt wastes no time in taking action. Not even Alcoa coach Gary Rankin will overrule her when it comes to a player’s health.
“I’ve seen her have arguments with coaches: ‘No! He’s not ready yet.’ A lot of parents see her as another coach,” Mike said.
Bratt won’t go so far as to make a medical diagnosis, but she knows her stuff, Jan Coulter said. When a freshman football player took a blow to the stomach not too long ago, Bratt knew almost instantly he was injured and just how serious it might be. By the time the player’s father, an area middle school coach, reached the Alcoa practice field, Bratt was in no mood to negotiate.
“That was a scary one,” she said. “I said, ‘You will take him to the emergency room. You will not stop to get something to drink. You will not go home to change clothes. You won’t do anything but take him to the emergency room.’”
Bratt’s fears were confirmed when the player was diagnosed with an injured spleen. Had she not been there, had she not known almost instinctively the proper course of action, the injury could have proven dire indeed.
It’s the relationships athletic trainers form with the athletes under their charge that makes it worthwhile, Bratt said.
“The best compliment I can get from a parent is when they say, ‘I feel better about my kids playing football because you’re out there,’” she said.
They’re more than mere words, Jan and Mike both say. Black (at Maryville), Bratt (Alcoa), Byrd (Heritage) and Tracy Martin (William Blount) have been assigned to their respective schools for several seasons now. If Black decided to move Bratt to another school, there’d be trouble.
“Our whole booster club would go see Joe Black if he wanted to move Peggy,” Mike said.
Jan Coulter is in complete agreement.
“We would fight Joe Black for all he’s got,” she said.
It’s the way athletic trainers integrate themselves with their respective schools that makes all the difference, Byrd said.
“The nice thing about what we do is you’ve got a trainer at every school,” he said. “You can tell how well they (a particular athlete) tolerate things, and you can tell when something’s not right. We take time to try to get to know them. You’ve got to gain their trust.”
David and Stephanie Burstrom feel much the same about Martin.
While he grew up on the fertile, athletic playing fields of sports mad Florida, the safety net for athletes back then was a far cry from what’s available now, David said.
It was “nothing like what Appalachian Therapy provides for the community,” he said. “It didn’t exist in high school. Not until I got to college did I see anything like what they have now. I think what they provide here is unbelievable.”
The Burstrom’s son, Tyler, played quarterback for the William Blount football team this past season. In keeping with the dangers associated with the position, he sustained his share of injuries.
Injury is a likely consequence of football. Parents, in a way, get used to it. It’s watching a child return to the sport that’s tough, Stephanie Burstrom said.
Martin eases their concerns about “how we feel putting him back out there for practice, putting him back out there for a game,” she said.
Ryan never returned to the gridiron, but, as noted, his athletic career did resume. He’s plays for an intramural and church league softball team now. He’s fitter than he’s ever been and regularly jogs with members of the track team at practice.
“Mainly the sprinters,” he said. “They’re not built for distance, so I can hang with them.”
That his son is around to run at all is more than enough for him, Robert Moore said.
“Who knows?” he said. “He could’ve played the whole year and lived the rest of his life and never had a problem. Then again, the next thing, the next drill he did, it could have been the last thing he ever did.”
Thanks in part to a level of care not available during his playing days, Robert said, Ryan never had to face that scenario.