By: Amy Palcic
Behind all the images of athletes running, jumping and celebrating wins, and the joy and elation the fans and spectators feel from watching their idols set records and compile victories, is a team of people who keep the world's top professional athletes healthy. It's this team that rehabs the stars you see on Sunday back from injury when skeptics say they'll never return to the same form, and gives them the confidence to trust their body. You rarely see or hear of them, but they are an integral part of on-field performance, which propels our teams to victory. They are the NFL sports medicine staff.
The Pro Football Athletic Trainers Society has recognized the best athletic training staff in the NFL since 1985. In 2013, the Houston Texans staff of Director of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer, Geoff Kaplan, Coordinator of Rehabilitation/Assistant Athletic Trainer, Roland Ramirez, and Assistant Athletic Trainer, A.J. Van Valkenburgh, along with their interns, Travis Turner, Adrian Dixon and Andrew Crane, received this prestigious honor.
"My proudest moment as a sports medicine professional is after a player has suffered a significant injury and he's been rehabbing for six, or seven, or eight months, and the day he steps back on the field, and he's back to being the guy he was before the injury, putting all that doubt that he had in his mind that he'd never be the same football player again. That is a proud moment," Kaplan said. "The fact that my staff has been recognized as the top athletic training staff in the NFL, and the award was voted on by our peers makes it even more special."
Brian Cushing, who was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009, voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010, and the team's Most Valuable Player in 2011, is facing his second consecutive season on injured reserve. Cushing knows better than most how challenging the journey back to health can be.
"Kap (Geoff Kaplan) and his staff have matched my commitment to my rehabilitation from injury," said Cushing. "I push myself to the limit every day and it has been so beneficial to have them by my side to teach me that I have to trust the process. I've learned that pushing harder to come back quicker than the plan allows would have actually set me back further. I appreciate the level of trust we have built to know they always have my best interest at heart."
What makes an elite sports medicine staff? It is part scientific research, part education, a willingness to use cutting-edge medicine, and a relentless commitment to giving the best health care possible to the players. It requires an aggressive, innovative, proactive approach, and a readiness to push sports medicine to the limit, all while maintaining the trust of their patients, the players. The players have to trust and believe in the process for it to work. The level of patience, dedication and teamwork required is unlike many professions.
That commitment sometimes means being at the stadium at 4 a.m. to meet a player who needs a few extra hours of treatment before meetings to give him the best chance to play on Sunday. That is precisely what Kaplan and his staff does.
"When you play this game long enough, you are going to have injuries," veteran quarterback Matt Schaub said. "There are things all players have to deal from an injury perspective in order to be on the field to play on Sundays. Geoff and his staff have met me here at the stadium countless times before dawn so I could keep my normal routine of meetings and film study, and be able to practice. They never flinch when they've had to stay late. I have so much respect for that type of effort on their part to be there and be present for the players. We rely on them every day to be able to stay on the field."
Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson has amassed some of the most impressive numbers in NFL history in his 11-year career and credits a good portion of his success as a player to Kaplan, Ramirez and Van Valkenburgh.
"I'm 32 years old, but I feel like I can play for a long time," Johnson said. "Records are being broken because my body has been able to hold up. I've been taught the right way to recover and I thank the Texans medical staff for their commitment to my health. It has made all the difference in my career."
Kaplan, Ramirez and Van Valkenburgh will emerge from behind the curtain on March 17, 2014 when they will be recognized for their distinguished service to their club, community, and athletic training profession at the Ed Block Courage Award banquet in Baltimore, Md. The award was named after long-time Baltimore Colts trainer Ed Block, who suffered a massive coronary during training camp in 1978. The players he cared for over his career are the same players that rushed to his aid, performed CPR and saved his life that summer.
The support from the Texans' sports medicine staff is pivotal in the functioning of the team on a day-to-day basis. The Texans, their staff and players are grateful for all of the care provided by the sports medicine staff. And it is Kaplan and his staff's passion and desire that drives their success in helping to return players back to the field.
"All of the athletic trainers and all of the physicians that work here work really hard and care deeply about what we do. We care deeply about the players who are here," said Kaplan. "We treat the players with the most cutting-edge sports medicine expertise and we work together as a team. That united front allows us to give the best health care possible to the players and staff."