Wake County

He's the injured athlete's go-to guy

Hours after the school day has ended, Aaron Minger, Broughton High's athletic trainer, is idling in a golf cart in the middle of the football practice field, easily accessible to all 120 players. Not 60 seconds after mentioning he's always on call for other sports, Minger picks up his ringing phone.

It's the women's tennis coach, and a player is down.

Immediately, Minger pushes the cart toward the courts as fast as it will go as tennis players, shouting and pointing, run toward him. At the gate, he grabs two 20-pound bags of first-aid equipment and takes off at full sprint.

The tennis player's knee injury isn't serious, but someone has called 911. Minger is able to wave off the EMS workers, saving the girl and her parents an expensive ambulance trip to the ER.

Athletic trainers, in fact, routinely save far more money in health care costs than it takes to pay for their positions.

It's an important point with lawmakers likely to debate again whether it's worth $21 million a year to require nationally certified athletic trainers in all of the state's 390 high schools. About 40 percent of the N.C. High School Athletic Association's members currently have trainers.

To quantify the value of athletic trainers, John Shepard, the trainer at Panther Creek High School in Cary, looked at his interactions with student-athletes over the 2010-2011 school year. If you extrapolate his findings to Wake County's 20 traditional high schools, he found that trainers saved parents more than $4 million in physical therapy costs alone.

That doesn't count the estimated $1.4 million parents saved in other insurance co-pays.

And it doesn't count what trainers give parents, coaches and principals in peace of mind.

I've had far more interaction with Minger than I would have chosen over the course of my Broughton football player's career - four years that have included a subluxed shoulder, severe dehydration, a sprained ankle and two concussions.

It was new research on the seriousness of concussions that caused lawmakers last session to consider requiring that every high school have a trainer. Budget constraints ended that debate, but they did pass the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Act, which requires that a medical professional be the one who clears a concussed athlete to play again.

The act followed a lawsuit that the family of Jaquan Waller filed against the Pitt County school system and the coaches of Greenville Rose High School. Waller's family believes he died because he was allowed to return to football too soon after a concussion. (Matthew Gfeller played at Winston-Salem Reynolds High when he died of a concussion, too.)

But even the new law might not be enough to keep kids safe.

After Minger suspected my son suffered a slight concussion during a practice, we took him to a pediatrician, who scoffed at Minger's caution and immediately signed the release form.

"I just think it's a lack of, well, I don't want to say professional respect," said Minger, who like all athletic trainers is licensed by the state. "A doctor may not be sports-medicine-oriented. There's not a whole lot of congruency on how to care for a concussion, what constitutes a concussion. We always err on the side of caution."

Always on the job

On an average day, Minger is on call to tend 300 athletes. On any given week, 20 or so athletes are out with injuries that he is monitoring, many of them waiting for a doctor's clearance, which involves paperwork Minger has to manage.

Although some school systems have full-time trainers and others rely on first responders trained in CPR, all of Wake's 20 traditional high schools have certified trainers who are also teachers.

Minger teaches four classes: two sections of Athletic Training 1, a section of Athletic Training 2 and a health class. His fellow teachers carry six classes. Minger is routinely at school more than 60 hours a week regardless.

"You're a teacher during the day, but during the day you're still the athletic trainer, and at night you're still the athletic trainer," Minger said. "You are always the athletic trainer. People come see me every period of the day."

It's difficult to think of having an athletic trainer at every high school as a luxury and not a necessity, especially when it's clear a trainer earns every dollar and ultimately saves some, too.

And the responsibility on them - sometimes life-and-death decisions on whether it's just too hot to keep practicing on those sultry August days - just keeps increasing.

"Any culpability would probably fall on me," Minger said with a laugh. "That's why coaches want me around."

With that responsibility comes autonomy.

"I don't feel like my job's riding on whether the star athlete gets back out there," Minger said. "I'm not hired by the football coach. I'm hired by Wake County schools.

"I get to make sure the kids are taken care of before we look at wins and losses."

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