Taking care of business

The athletic training room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex is unusually quiet these days.

And there is one reason, and one reason only.

The players are off until the start of training camp at Saint Vincent College.

But don’t let the quiet fool you. The work as the athletic training staff prepares for camp, and the season, never stops. While there might not be ankles to tape and injuries to tend to, this is still a time of constant activity for Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig and his staff of Sonia Ruef, Jon Andino and Daveon Lee, as well as a team of interns that grows when camp begins.

Like other departments, the athletic training staff uses the time after the team’s minicamp ends to prepare for training camp. Moving basically an entire medical facility from one location to another isn’t an easy task. It requires organization, it requires effort and it requires teamwork to have everything packed and then unpacked and ready to go at Saint Vincent College.

“The youngest member of our staff has been here seven years and I have been here 28 years, so we’ve done it over and over again so I think we are more efficient at it, but it’s a matter of moving quite a bit,” said Norwig. “We have to have a moving company come in, pick up our things, take it to Saint Vincent and then we have to meet them at Saint Vincent and unpack it so it’s a couple days to get that accomplished.”

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The one advantage the staff does have is some of the equipment they require, which includes taping tables and storage, already exists at Saint Vincent College, due in large part to continued upgrades to the school’s facilities. But the packing list still outdoes anything you could imagine, even if you are the classic over-packer.  

“We take a tremendous amount of taping supplies and first aid supplies,” said Norwig. “We take some of our rehab equipment and we utilize some of the things they have there. It’s not a couple boxes it’s a lot of trunks.

“Their facilities are much better than when we first went up there. The training room is right in the middle of the locker room. They put air conditioners in there. It’s not bad.”

The hours, well let’s just say ‘not bad’ isn’t the way to describe those. The athletic trainers are basically on call 24/7, one of the four full-time staff members always ready if a player has an issue.

“We’ve had things happen in the middle of the night, someone gets sick, appendicitis, we had a complication from injury where we had to take someone to the emergency room,” said Norwig. “There are a number of things that can happen. There’s always an athletic trainer so at least one or two of us are on campus all the time. Even on the off days we have somebody there.”

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A normal day at camp starts around 6:30 a.m. for the athletic training staff, and like Norwig said, it really never ends.

“It depends on the schedule for the day what things are like,” said Norwig. “Generally speaking when we have two practice sessions we come in at 6:30 a.m. We try to close down for an hour over lunch and then we are open until about 6:30 p.m. We also have treatment in the dorms starting after the meetings are over which is about 9:30-10:30 p.m.

“It is a cool job but a lot does go into it. I’ve don’t it for a long time and I really enjoy it. I think Deveon, Dino, and Sonia would say the same thing. But you realize when you get into this, whether high school, college, or the pros, your hours are not a normal eight hour work day, five days a week with the weekends off. That’s just not how it works.”

While Norwig enjoyed the recently completed offseason program, it’s the approaching training camp that is what gets the fire burning because it means the start of the season is close.

“You know the season is coming when we have that last veteran minicamp and you have those couple of weeks off,” said Norwig. “That is when we are getting everything organized and prepared to go to Saint Vincent.

“And then after that is the season. Everybody loves game day. We all work really hard, and it’s a whole lot more fun around here when we win. We are all competitive. I do it to take care of the athletes, but I love sports and I want to win. We all want to win.”

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Like training camp, game day is also always a road trip for Norwig’s staff. Every game, whether it’s home or on the road, they have to pack up equipment to have it either taken to Heinz Field or put on the plane for the road trip.

“Playing at Heinz Field is like a road trip because basically we have to take everything over that we take on the road with us. We pack up all of our trunks for game day, home or away. That’s pretty easy, we probably have a half of dozen trunks, our spine board and a few things. But that’s routine. We have a long list just like training camp, you check your checklist, is everything in there and it goes.”

Through the years Norwig has seen changes. He has seen the role of athletic trainers grow and develop. They are far more than what you see on game day.

“As an athletic trainer for a professional sports team you are a healthcare coordinator,” said Norwig. “We have contact with all of the physicians, but we are also responsible for working with our strength and conditioning folks to help prevent injuries from occurring, or work with them to make sure that existing conditions are well taken care of and they are prepared for the next season. Our job is to take care of our players first, we always take care of coaches, and we try to help the staff when we can. We have responsibility with the NFL. We have responsibility for the NFL Draft and we have to have good medical information on the top 400-500 college athletes that are available for the draft. There is plenty to do in the offseason and obviously we are player intensive during the season.

“There is also tons and tons of paperwork, a lot of medical records are kept, and your communications have to be documented so there is a lot more to it than taking care of someone’s ankle sprain.”

Despite the hectic hours, the non-stop being available, and taking care of 90 players, the staff loves what they do.

“I think it’s the interaction with the people, whether it is players, coaches, or the administration here,” said Norwig. “It’s a good group of people, it’s a nice working environment. Our ownership provides that working environment.”

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