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Munster High School athletic trainer receives State Athletic Trainers Association highest honor

Munster High School athletic trainer Mary Spina, right, works with a student at the high school.

Last Tuesday was not a good day for the profession of athletic training, with the revelation that Maryland had terminated the employment of athletic trainers Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall.

Closer to home, Sunday was better, when the Indiana Athletic Trainers’ Association held its annual meeting and awards ceremony in Carmel.

Robinson, who previously worked at Purdue, was the head athletic trainer for the Maryland football team and had been at the school since 2006. Nordwall, once on staff at Notre Dame, had been the assistant athletic director for athletic training at Maryland since 2014.

Both were released after having been placed on administrative leave on Aug. 10 in the wake of the June death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. On the May day that McNair collapsed, Robinson and Nordwall were on the field and are accused, in a report commissioned by Maryland, of failing to diagnose McNair with — and then properly treat him for— heatstroke.

One line apparently uttered by Robinson to student athletic trainers assisting McNair will always stick with me.

“Drag his (expletive) off the field,” he allegedly shouted.

It was like McNair was some kind of commodity.

Those recognized in Carmel made a career of treating athletes like they were their own children. While most of the honorees — including Munster High School’s Mary Spina — were athletic trainers, Indianapolis Colts orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tom Klootwyk was named team physician of the year and retired Munster High School athletic director Mike Smith received a President’s Excellence Award. Smith retired in 2012.

Klootwyk was not able to attend, otherwise occupied at Lucas Oil Stadium.

However, Smith was there. After the ceremony and after receiving multiple congratulations, he wanted to talk about Maryland.

Ever since ESPN published its investigative report in August of the McNair tragedy, Smith and I have spoken repeatedly about the matter. Looking back at his 11 years as athletic director at Logansport, followed by 12 years at Munster, he saw the athletic trainer as someone who would “oversee and stop the coaches from doing anything (foolish).”

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He hired Logansport’s first athletic trainer, Whiting native Tom Evanich, who retired in June after 27 years with the Berries.

At Munster, Smith convinced district administrators to approve computerized baseline concussion testing before any other school district in Indiana.

As an athletic director, coach, parent, and grandparent, he has always recognized the value and necessity of athletic trainers.

“The best thing for any athletic department, “he said, “are (athletic) trainers who are a pain in the (neck). The desire to win clouds a lot of common sense.”

Where was the sense or judgment of the Maryland athletic training staff when McNair started to show signs of heat illness? Reading the Maryland-commissioned report, it showed signs of being clouded even before the fateful workout session began.

Moved at the last moment from a grass to a turf field, thus greatly magnifying a temperature in the low 80s, the workout suddenly carried far more risk. The original site had cooling tubs present. Because of haste or oversight, they were never moved.

Made to hold 150 gallons, plastic water troughs — that sell for $150 — are a common sight on Calumet Region football and soccer fields and are easy to move on a golf cart when empty.

That is all that would have been needed to save McNair. According to the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, which is named for the Minnesota Vikings lineman who was killed by heatstroke in 2001, the save rate for immediate cold-water immersion in such a tub is 100 percent.

Instead, 94 minutes were allowed to pass from the time McNair became ill until an ambulance took him to a hospital. He was never immersed in cold water during that intermediate time. By then, his temperature exceeded 106 degrees, organ failure followed, and a subsequent liver transplant provided no cure.

And all this occurred because of an apparent lack of compassion for a suffering athlete, an unwillingness to be a “pain” to overzealous coaches, and the absence of a $150 tub filled with ice water.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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