The Athletic Trainer: An Unsung Hero

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Mark Kwikkel at the VSN All Star Classic.

Anyone who has talked to me this summer understands I’ve had a lot of windshield time. During a recent long drive and because college football season is about to start  I went down my annual spiral of thinking about different teams in the NAIA and reminiscing about my friends and I when I played at Dana College.

Sure we lost a lot of games but I made a lot of friends and memories back in those days. Some people have come and gone over the years but there was one guy who I am eternally grateful for the chance to be around him and his profession.

Mark Kwikkel, former head athletic trainer at Dana College, saved my life and I want to thank him for it. For a little context I should tell you about the last college football game I ever played.

We were 0-4 and not off to a good start in my junior season at Dana College. No one ever mistook the Vikings for a football powerhouse, but that season we had high hopes.

Earlier that year we had great spring workouts and the core of the team was coming back. Most of the starters had at least one year under their belt and our team seemed to be incredibly close.

Then the injuries started and our extreme lack of depth really started to show.

I remember waking up the day of the game with a feeling this week would be different. That we would pull this one off. I did my usual OCD like pregame rituals and was ready to head to Seward to take on Concordia.

I honestly don’t remember much from the game or the days after but there are a few things than are crystal clear, like Polaroid captured by my brain.

Most notably was “the play” because it’s the last of two moments I remember in my college football career.

Two backs in the backfield. Responsibility was to be manned up on the back on my side of the formation. Ball snapped, he went left and I went with him for three steps. Linemen stood up and retreated backward. Oh crap, screen right. Two recovery steps. . .now it’s halftime and I’m drinking water not knowing the score?

I was obliterated on the play. Not a dirty shot at all. I was out of position and the tight end cracked back on me. I don’t remember a thing. They scored and I went to the sideline. Since I ran off the field and was quiet, no one said a thing. They thought I was just pissed off because of what happened. Instead I had no idea what was happening.

I continued to play. Nobody’s fault but my own. The only other moment I remember was having to come out of the game. Somehow I was pursuing a running back to our sideline. I reached out to grab the guys jersey and got a hold of it. Someone came from the backside when my arm was extended and my elbow bent. . . the wrong way. . .and then I was on the ground screaming because it felt like my arm had been broken off backwards.

Postgame I was iced up on the elbow and not talking to many people. My family was there but I don’t remember any of it. The next thing I remember was sitting outside Valentino’s pizza in Seward eating a pizza by myself when our trainers Mark Kwikkel and Jeff Hume asked me if I was okay. I didn’t remember another thing about that day.

The training room was open on Sunday’s from 10:30 to 12:30. No concussion could knock that memory out of my head because seeing those guys had become a ritual. Each week there was something new on my body falling off. Ankle, knee, back or just generally anything that was on me was in bad shape.

The day after the Concordia game I didn’t remember I had hurt my elbow. I woke up, tried to push myself off of my mattress and then screamed into my pillow. I do remember thinking “What the hell happened last night?” Which, coincidentally, a lot of my teammates were probably thinking the same thing that morning after our usual Dana Rewind parties. This is where we would sit around and drink to reply the games out loud. Using out special “Kreech Math” we could figure out how we actually won the game. #losingsyndrome

I didn’t drink at the time, but apparently I was at Dana Rewind forgetting the game the same as everyone else, just much quicker than the Old Milwaukee’s Best Light was allowing them to at the time

To this day, I think the best college football trainer in the world is Mark Kwikkel. That morning I credit Kwiks with saving my life.

That’s probably a little melodramatic but there is a lot of truth into it. I had been “dinged” two other times during the season pretty good, but never as bad as this one.

I went to the training room and Kwikkel met me at the door. Usually Mark would greet you with a joke or a quick remark to set you at ease but that morning I could see in his eyes he was concerned.

“You okay, Chip?”

It was said in a tone where he already knew the answer. He asked me about the game, about my night and did all the concussion tests. After doing some rehab on my now hyper-extended elbow he talked to me as a concerned parent, like a father figure, about what happened and what it all meant.

I was missing the next game for sure because of the elbow. By Tuesday, it was the size of a grapefruit. But during that time, Kwikkel set me up with another line of concussion tests and had me see a specialist.

I didn’t know it 24 hours earlier, but I had played my last college football game.

This story isn’t amazing. I played a game, I got hurt, I had to quit.

The amazing part to me was Mark Kwikkel. This was the fall of 2000. Concussions weren’t even on the radar. No one was talking about them and most people weren’t taking them seriously. He went above and beyond what was being asked of athletic trainers at the time to make sure the well being of the athlete was taken care of.

The following weeks were terrible. Not only was I trying to heal an elbow but I was also trying to make head or tails of what was going on in my brain.  I could read for about one to two minutes at a time before getting a massive headache. That went on for three months.

If I was in a room where the walls were white and the lights were bright I would see the equivalent of thousands of red ants sprinting up and down the walls.

I was also working part time in radio at the time. Every time I would go to read the news or sports I’d stutter and stammer before losing my place on whatever it was that I was trying to say.

After the tests and a few weeks, Mark sat me down in his office and had a very direct conversation with me. He told me the results. Gave me the good and the bad.

Then in a bedside manner that people who know Mark will only understand, he said:

“Well Chip, here are your honest to God choices. You can sit out the rest of this year and maybe play next fall or you guarantee yourself to eat solid food the rest of your life and be done with football.”

I laughed and knew I had to make the right decision. In a win at all costs sport, Kwiks was concerned about your future. He knew the only NFL in our future would be if we bought tickets.

Over the years there were probably 2-3 of my teammates who went through the same thing and countless others that Kwiks advised. Was he just doing his job? Probably. But to me he did it with the type of concern that only someone who truly cared about the athletes could.

Don’t read anything into this about my coaches either. They were right there with Kwiks and supported me long after my contributions to the football team were over.

I’m not sure what might have happened if I tried to play again the next year. I’m just thankful that I didn’t and that Kwikkel was my trainer.

In my VSN days I put on an annual NAIA football senior game. When I knew I needed athletic trainers on hand there was nobody else even on the list. Kwikkel and Hume. That’s all I needed. Also because I knew I would need people to go above and beyond since I had no idea how to pull off a game like this. They’d do their trainer duties and everything else that was needed to make the game a success.

Hopefully there are other people reading this saying, “Yep, Mr. Trainer X did that for me.”

These guys are unsung heroes. They are at every practice year round. They fix the broken people and get them back on the field and they save guys like me from having to eat through a straw. Most of the people in the crowd have no idea what these people do on the sidelines. They seem them with a water bottle in hand, tape scissors in their pocket and think “Geez, how do I get that job?”

So while I say thank you to Mark Kwikkel, you should say thank you to whoever did the same for you back in the day or the ones who are taking care of your teams now. Make today “thank an athletic trainer” day.

All over the country colleges have geared up for practices and the trainers will be there from sun up to sun down making sure the athletes get on the field and are protected. Don’t get pissed at them when they make your son or daughter sit out a practice or game. It’s not the end of the world. I mean, they’re making sure they don’t die. Cut them some slack.

Thanks Mark. And it wouldn’t be the start of football season if I didn’t leave you with a great quote that I heard first from Kwiks and has been said by trainers all over the country since the start of the profession.

“If your pee is clear, practice with no fear. If your pee is yellow, take a drink good fellow.”

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