TAMPA - The most frightening part for Sheryl Turner was seeing her 17 year old son strapped to a board with his football helmet still on, and the face mask cut off.
"Then I knew it was serious," said Turner.
It was serious. Turner's son, Derrick, had broken two vertebrae in his neck making a tackle. It was Jesuit High School's first varsity football practice in pads. It could very well have been Derrick's last tackle, if not for the training and experience of Jesuit's full-time certified athletic trainer.
"I didn't move him," remembers Chris Smith, a highly regarded former athletic trainer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One year later, Derrick is back in pads - stronger and more confident than ever.
The incident highlights the importance of having a trainer who is certified by the National Athletic Trainer's Association and licensed by the State of Florida.
Jesuit High School has Chris Smith on the payroll full-time, but most schools aren't so lucky. Two-thirds of high schools nationally have no certified athletic trainers on staff. In Hillsborough County, the ratio is far less.
Out of 27 high schools in the county, only two have certified trainers on staff. All football games are attended by a doctor and an ambulance, but even the district's athletic director admits the lack of full time certified athletic trainers is a problem. "Ultimately, there's a shortcoming with a lack of certified athletic trainers in all of our schools," said Lanness Robinson.
Hillsborough and other districts rely instead on trainers provided at no charge by the University of South Florida and Florida Orthopedic Institute. The private clinic donates the time of about a dozen certified trainers and doctors to attend practices and games in various sports. They also provide some free treatment to student athletes.
Dr. Adam Morse believes certified trainers can teach techniques to prevent injuries, and can recognize injuries that are not always obvious, such as concussions. "If I let you go back to sports too soon, there's a second concussion syndrome that can result in severe brain damage or death," warned Dr. Morse.
Certified Athletic Trainers play another critical role on the field of play. Jesuit High's football offensive coordinator Chris Taylor says the athletic trainer gets the final word when it comes to playing or benching a player.
"I think that's important. He's someone totally divorced from winning and losing. He's making decisions based on what's best for the health of the kids and I think that's terrific" said Taylor.
Certified trainer Smith recommends parents enrolling their students in sports to ask some key questions. "Is there an athletic trainer on staff? Does he come to practice every day - especially for football, JV and varsity. Do they attend all the games?"
Smith also had advice for Derrick on how to make a tackle.
"Keep your head up all the time. Never lead with your head."
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