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WHEELING, Ill. — Members of the Great Lakes Athletic Trainers’ Association gathered here last week for GLATA’s 51st annual meeting. The four-day event attracted attendees from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin and as they walked between lecture halls, they passed by a picture of those who had gathered at the very first meeting a half century ago.

Among those in the old grainy photo — in the front row — was Purdue’s then-head athletic trainer William “Pinky” Newell, considered to be the father of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Now, lectures and awards are named for the man whose career finished in West Lafayette more than four decades ago.

I wonder if he had any idea, all those years ago, what he had started.

As time has passed, and membership in the profession has mushroomed, there have been numerous athletic trainers who have met and exceeded the standard Newell originally set.

Two in particular were in attendance, one to lecture and the other to receive an award.

In 1985, Doug Casa was a high school senior intent on medaling in the 10 K race at the Empire State Games after years of coming up short. On Aug. 8 of that year, though, his goal was well within reach but with a half lap to go, he fell on his face. However, still in position to medal, he was able to get up and resume running only to collapse 50 meters from the finish line.

“I woke up five hours later,” he told an audience on Friday during his lecture entitled “Preventing Sudden Death.” The victim of exertional heat stroke, Casa would almost certainly have died if not for the prompt action of an athletic trainer to start rapid body cooling.

Fast-forward to 2002 and by then Casa was an athletic trainer at the University of Connecticut, where he had earned his Ph.D. five years earlier, who was quickly becoming the leading expert on heat illness in the nation. In June of that year, he was featured in this space for the first time. I would finally meet Casa in person in 2007, the last time he lectured at GLATA. As I wrote at the time, “Seeing him up at the podium … I immediately thought to myself, ‘This guy is wired.’”

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The students who have studied under his direction and the athletes for whose safety he has advocated should be thankful for his passion.

In 2010, Casa launched the Korey Stringer Institute at UConn. It is a facility dedicated to improving performance and safety, and preventing sudden death among athletes, soldiers and laborers. The institute is named for the late Minnesota Viking offensive lineman who died of exertional heat stroke in 2001. It is partially funded by Stringer’s widow, Kelci.

With the assistance of a staff of 80 at KSI, Casa has convinced many state high school athletic associations to change for the better their rules regarding concussion, heat illness and sudden cardiac arrest. During his talk, he explained how several states have recently improved in the safety rankings issued annually by KSI, but at the same time highlighted how Indiana, in particular, has slipped.

In March of 1992, Munster native Mary Blaesing was a senior at Purdue University and featured in this space after being named one of three winners of the “Pinky” Newell Scholarship. The annual award continues to be given to students who display superiority in “academics, service, loyalty, and love of mankind.”

Blaesing would go on to receive her master’s degree at West Virginia University before serving two stints as the head athletic trainer at New York Maritime College, where she also doubled as director of women’s athletics during her second term there. By then, she was Mary Spina.

For the last four years, she has been the head athletic trainer at Munster High School while also supervising Community Healthcare System’s Concussion Clinic.

While the rules may not necessarily call for it yet, many high schools in Northwest Indiana are following most of the standards Casa advocates. That is thanks in part to the annual workshop started by Spina four years ago and held at Munster High just prior to the start of each fall season. During the workshop, athletic trainers, paramedics and physicians from across the Region practice spine boarding and review best practices for dealing with medical emergencies, particularly heat illness.

For all of her efforts advocating student-athlete safety, Spina was recognized on Friday by Gatorade as the District 4 (GLATA) Secondary School Athletic Trainer of the Year. Newell would be proud.

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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