Junior year. Third base. Pinch runner Lindsay Perry eyed the pitcher as she edged away from the bag toward home. She was fast, and Bellarmine’s softball team wanted another run. The pitcher went for the pick-off, “and I slid back into third headfirst, like Pete Rose,” Lindsay recalls. She was safe, but her right hand exploded in pain: She had jammed it into the base and broken the knuckle of her fourth finger, which began to swell and turn purple.
She scored on the next pitch, Bellarmine won the game, and for part of the rest of the season, until her finger healed, Lindsay ran bases in a cast.
But when she started throwing again, she realized she had also injured her shoulder in the slide, tearing the labrum, the cup of cartilage that supports the ball-and-socket joint. She had surgery in the off-season, but never really recovered. A second tear required another surgery the following year.
The injury ended her athletic career. But ultimately, it inspired her professional one.
After graduating in 2015 with an undergraduate degree in exercise science, Lindsay is now one of the first students pursuing Bellarmine’s new master’s degree in Athletic Training. Athletic trainers collaborate with physicians to provide emergency care and rehabilitation for athletes, and work on conditioning to help prevent injuries. Lindsay plans to be a trainer at the college level.
“We have contact with a patient daily. How many other health professionals have that?” she says. “To me, it’s more of a holistic experience. [Student athletes] are still young adults, going through changes in life besides the fact that their shoulder hurts. They come here to play; they get hurt and they can’t play. You treat the body, but we also have to treat the things going on in their lives.”
Her personal experience with catastrophic injury, she says, will make her a more empathetic athletic trainer.
“I have to believe there really was a purpose to it,” she says. “When you play at the collegiate level, that is your identity. Once I lost that, I knew that whatever I pursued, I needed to hold onto that little part of me. Being an athletic trainer just fits so well.”
A GROWING FIELD
Bellarmine decided to add the Master of Science in Athletic Training (MSAT) after the Commission on the Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) announced in 2015 that the entry-level degree for athletic trainers would transition to the master’s degree by 2022. The university hired Dr. Myra Stockdale, an associate professor of athletic training from the shuttered St. Catharine College, to develop the program as director and chair, and the first cohort began in August 2017.
“The program is a natural fit in the new School of Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences and complements the undergraduate Exercise Science department and the Doctor of Physical Therapy program,” said Dr. Mark Wiegand, vice provost of Academic Affairs and former dean of the Lansing School, which, along with the School of Movement, is now housed in the new College of Health Professions. “It provides another avenue of study for students coming to Bellarmine with an interest in movement, exercise, health and wellness, and provides career opportunities for graduates to work with athletes across the spectrum—from youth leagues, high school, college and professional sports to recreational weekend warriors.”
Athletic training is a rapidly growing field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13,100 trainers were employed nationally in 2004; by 2016, the number had grown to 27,800. The Bureau predicts the employment of athletic trainers will grow 23 percent over the next decade, much faster than the average for other professions.
In Kentucky, Spalding and Eastern Kentucky University have master’s programs, and Thomas More is waiting to hear about its accreditation status, Dr. Stockdale said. (Bellarmine is currently seeking CAATE accreditation, which is necessary for graduates to take their boards.) Murray is ending its master’s program because of state budget cuts. Union and Georgetown colleges and Northern Kentucky University have bachelor’s degree programs. Bellarmine’s second cohort, which began in July, doubled in size; eventually the program will have a capacity of 20 to 24 students, said Dr. Tony Brosky, dean of the School of Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences.
In addition to offering the traditional two-year postgraduate program, Bellarmine offers undergraduates majoring in exercise science/sport performance early admission, allowing them to complete both a bachelor’s degree and the MSAT in five years.
That’s what Eddie Mathis, a rising senior, is doing—all while continuing to pitch for the Bellarmine Knights, who just came off a record season. He has a fifth year of baseball eligibility after being redshirted for a year following surgery for a torn ligament in his elbow, a fairly common injury for pitchers.
“I was kind of interested in athletic training before [the injury], but going through all that, and seeing what all athletic trainers have to do, increased my interest,” he said. While he’s not sure whether he will ultimately seek a job as an athletic trainer—he’s also interested in a degree in physical therapy—he believes, like Lindsay, that his personal experience on the other side will make him a better practitioner.
“You know what it’s like when you’ve been hurt. It gives you more perspective,” he said. “There’s a psychological aspect, big-time, and if they know you’ve been through it, there’s a bit more trust.”
A VARIETY OF CAREERS
Sports experience is not a prerequisite for the MSAT program, but athletes tend to be drawn to the profession because many of them have worked with athletic trainers, Dr. Stockdale said.
Bellarmine’s head athletic trainer, Brad Bluestone, had scholarship offers to play baseball in college but turned them down. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a career for me—I knew my limitations,” he said. “I wasn’t even going to be an athletic trainer when I started college” in San Diego, Calif. “I was a psych major.” He changed his mind after taking abnormal psychology, though, and the athletic training program at San Diego State clicked. “Helping people, fixing people, helping athletes—I get to watch sports for a living. What’s not to like?”
After graduating, he landed a job with the St. Louis Cardinals and spent 13 years in Minor League Baseball, working everything from rookie to AAA teams and Major League spring training. “I ended up in professional baseball anyway, just in a different capacity.” (He also estimates that he’s watched 35,000 innings of baseball over his career as a whole, which also included working in a sports performance program clinic and managing a baseball academy.)
Meeting his future wife while working for the Redbirds led Bluestone to settle in Louisville, and meeting Athletic Director Scott Wiegandt during Wiegandt’s years as a professional pitcher led him to Bellarmine, where he has worked as a trainer for 13 years and been head trainer for seven. He earned a master’s degree in sports administration to teach in the MSAT program.
He also guides students during the clinical rotation at Bellarmine, where the university’s four athletic trainers work with the athletes from the school’s 22 sports in the new Bradford T. Ray Sports Performance Center. MSAT students also have the opportunity to do their clinicals in Jefferson County Public Schools, private high schools in the area, and
non-athletic settings such as Norton hospitals.
“I didn’t even realize there was an orthopedic side of things until we went to Norton, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,’” said Melissa Huber, who enrolled in Bellarmine’s MSAT program after earning an undergraduate degree in kinesiology at the University of Kentucky. “At first I thought about physical therapy, but I really love athletics—I’ve done gymnastics since I was 6 and I cheered for two years at NKU” before transferring, she said. A study abroad trip to England with a kinesiology professor where she observed athletic training classes convinced
her to apply to Bellarmine.
Now she’s thinking about a career as an athletic trainer who works with an orthopedic surgeon. “Once we got into the hospital setting I called my mom and said, ‘I found what I want.’”
Athletic trainers also work in industrial settings. “Ford and Toyota, UPS, General Electric—they have athletic trainers on staff for work-related injuries,” Bluestone said. “People get hurt on lines. To have someone there with the expertise to get that person back on the line quickly is valuable to companies.” The U.S. military is beginning to contract with athletic trainers, he said, particularly at bases like Fort Benning in Georgia, which conducts basic training for thousands of soldiers, not all of whom arrive physically fit.
But Ashley Duvall, the fourth member of the first MSAT cohort, is pretty sure she wants to follow the traditional path: She wants to be a trainer for the NFL.
Ashley, who ran track and cross-country and played basketball in high school, majored in exercise science as an undergraduate at Bellarmine. “I was originally on the PT course. But about a month into sophomore year, I thought, ‘I do not want to do this anymore. It was too much, too fast.’ I dipped into occupational therapy and did some shadowing, but it was too mundane, too slow.”
Her senior year, she accompanied Dr. Chelsey Franz, assistant professor of athletic training, on a service trip to the Dominican Republic. “I saw more of the prevention-of-care side of things, working with athletes to make sure they don’t get hurt, and I realized that athletic training was something I could enjoy.”
Despite growing awareness of the profession, she chuckled as she explained how she describes athletic training to people who aren’t familiar with it. “I say, ‘I’m that person that will be running onto the field in khakis.’”
By Carla Carlton | firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar