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Nancy Napier: How athletic trainers keep the football game going at Boise State

Balloons that lift athletes up make it seem like they are walking on the moon, but they’re actually on antigravity treadmill.
Balloons that lift athletes up make it seem like they are walking on the moon, but they’re actually on antigravity treadmill. Boise State Universtiy

After the Boise State-New Mexico football game, I got a note from Marc Paul, assistant athletic director and head athletic trainer for Boise State. At 1:35 a.m., roughly 90 minutes after the game ended, he and his sports-medicine staff were finally leaving for the night.

They would return nine hours later to help get players ready for another game in six days. There are “more things to treat the day after a loss than a win,” he said, so Sunday would be busy.

I suspect Paul meant that more injuries happen in losses, but after talking with and watching him and his staff over about six hours, it became clear that they care about more than just physical repairs. Once again, I was privileged to watch a behind-the-scenes group that is critical to the football experience. Two full-time athletic trainers, Jim Spooner and Paul Smith, plus nine students keep the football student athletes in good working order. Ten other athletic trainers and 25 students work with the other 300-plus athletes.

Their facility includes an antigravity machine (like walking on the moon), which allows a 200-pound athlete to “run” in a 130-pound body so his ankle can heal. An underwater treadmill pool’s five cameras track stride, sideways movement and gait. Tables for taping, stretching, repairing … all in natural light and calmness that explodes expectations built on seeing those cramped sweaty training rooms in boxing movies.

Here’s some of what I learned:

On game day, from 5:55 p.m. to 8:21 p.m. (the scheduled kick off), 20 lines on a laminated schedule describe who is where, doing what, when.

From about 6:15 to 7:10, three or four athletic trainers tape about 100 ankles, taking two to three minutes for each ankle, applying adhesive spray, then padding, then blue or black tape that “sticks to itself.” For some players, on go the socks, then more tape around the shoe through the cleats. The trainers start sweating about 15 minutes into this gig, peeling off their own outer shirts.

Some players get knee braces (not a favorite), some have taping on their wrists, thighs, torsos. Athletic trainers stretch players into pretzel positions. The room is busy but calm.

Starting 83 minutes before kick off (6:58), some position group is on the field every 3 or 5 or 10 minutes. In between, players return for more taping, for a new mouth guard, or adjusting of a brace.

The staff heads to the field after the players run through fog shot out of what looks like an 18-inch-diameter, 6-foot long stainless-steel canister. A Powerade station and chicken-broth containers are ready. Water bottles await on the benches for players to grab and gulp. The student assistants roam around with more water, encouraging player hydration to avoid cramps.

All around me, microstories unfold. Redshirt freshmen, wearing jerseys and jeans, flap white towels and cheer with the crowd. Players who miss a catch — or make one — get a shoulder nudge or helmet slap. Four throw a ball back and forth about 2 feet from my head. A quarterback answers one of two phones that look like old office-table models.

I watch the athletic trainers, since it’s tough to see the real game (not the screen game). While standing on the sidelines may be cool, I feel like I’m in a forest of black-and-blue-uniformed trees, a foot or two taller than I am. They didn’t look this big in the training room.

The trainers scout for who’s slow to stand up, limping, anything unusual. They first watch the front-line players, because they are likely to push and shove the longest. Then they check the second and third layer. All in seconds.

One player is hit, and Smith grabs the edge of his shoulder pad to pull him aside. Smith has a bushy beard better suited to working with smoke jumpers (which he has done). He stands 6 inches from the player’s face, asks him questions to keep the young man’s focus on him, and finally nudges him inside for a check. A second trainer tells the coach in charge so personnel changes can be made, fast.

Another player hurts his ankle. Spooner and team doctor Kirk Lewis create a bubble of calm around the player, who keeps his mouth from grimacing but looks disappointed. Spooner walks him to the training facility, and by half time, the tape is off and the player’s foot is encased in what appears to be a flannel ice pad. Two friends sit on the table next to the player. A trainer checks on him. Again, calmness pervades.

When serious injuries happen, coaches (and others) get stressed, yet the athletic trainers keep things calm with an intense focus and presence that makes me think they can forget about yoga. They are plenty “in the moment” during those games.

Spooner, like all of the people in this group, is quick to praise people he works with — fellow athletic trainers, the team doctor, players. Members of the sports-medicine staff look after each other, as well as the players. This is not a “me” culture. It’s one where they try to build relationships, have an impact and learn.

At the end of the night, the trainers compare notes on who’s been hurt and how badly, and who needs MRIs or X-rays. They drive home already thinking about “injury triage” on Sunday and the countdown to the next game.

Reach Nancy Napier, distinguished professor, Boise State University, at