Mountain Pointe linebacker Nick Griffin was talking to defensive coordinator Jeff Decker last week about getting his cast off his hand later that day, and how he was going to tell his doctor he was going to play again.
Decker kind of laughed and said, "So you are a hand specialist now?"
"It's just a hand," Griffin said.
"Be smart," Decker replied. "Not worth being maimed the rest of your life."
Away from the emotions of a typical Friday night, such reasonable reactions often prevail.
But not always. Certainly not when a school's key player is injured, wobbly, woozy or knicked up.
Coaches need them on the field when a win, playoff berth or (sadly) a job is at stake. Kids want to get back out there to help the team and show coaches, teammates and potential college suitors their toughness. Parents either freak out about their kid missing time when they could be seen by those working for the next level, or overreact and become overly coddling in the opposite direction.
Caught squarely between the ever-present tug-of-well-being between that pain tolerance, communication between those three parties, with much at stake, are the athletic trainers.
These men and women go through years of required training and education at the local and national level to be at every practice and home game of every freshmen/JV/varsity competition.
They have to extract information out of reluctant teenagers trying to be tough and avoid the dreaded "soft" perception, all while being yelled at in moments of rage by coaches when they decide a kid can't play, and often work at least 60 hours per week.
Many teach classes at their respective school. Many others work at clinics during the day and head to school in the afternoon.
"I don't count it up," Basha trainer Ric Moreno joked. "I'm afraid I'd cry."
Now, add in the seriousness and exploding emphasis of concussions to the bumps, bruises, sprains, twists, pulls, breaks and (gulp) worse.
"I wouldn't want that job," Mesquite coach Matt Gracey said.
Those who do, however, love it. Their names are never heard or seen in headlines, and what they do on game night is but a crumb of their plate in a given week.
From Seton Catholic (Joanna Scandura), Tempe Prep (Amy Rust), Highland (Dave Hayward), Hamilton (Lance Micheal), Campo Verde (Dave Mesman, who was integral behind a lot of recent concussion research and legislation), Arizona's head healing honcho at Brophy (Chris White, president of the Arizona Athletic Trainers Association), and every school in between, it's about the bottom line involving kids' interactions and the intrinsic reward of seeing them recover and return to health.
Hence, the struggle to draw lines in the sand against the impulse needs of the team and emotions of affected parties.
In Week 2, Mesquite quarterback Steven Bevan took a hit by Red Mountain, came off dazed, but insisted he was (and looked) fine. He went back for the next offensive series, but he got crunched again.
Bevan came back to the sidelines and (to his credit) told Gracey he didn't feel right. The coach saw his pupils "were the size of pie plates," and ordered him to see the training staff. He suffered a concussion and his night was done.
The following week he was cleared for running and non-contact drills in practice, but on Thursday night before playing Chandler, his baseline concussion tests weren't good enough to satisfy Mesquite's staff, and they told Gracey that Bevan couldn't play the next day.
Against a good Chandler team and figuring his starting quarterback would be fine since he practiced during the week, Gracey wasn't pleased. The game-plan had to be significantly swapped on Thursday night, and the Wildcats lost 33-0.
Yet, after having concussions himself as a player, and seeing a few of his kids suffer devastating injuries from his days in California and Washington, what was he to do? He doesn't have the final decision anyway.
"I can't second-guess them, or I'd put my teaching and coaching career on the line," he said.
Nearly every trainer has multiple stories of kids getting hurt, and parents, coaches and the player himself or herself pushing the envelope to get back into action, and sometimes they get vicious.
Then again, only one of the parties involved has a requisite bachelor's degree in athletic training (Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona are the two schools in the state that offer it).
After that comes 1,800 hours of work with a trainer necessary to be nationally certified, plus a series of annual tests required to keep their license.
"The pressure is always there, it's enormous," said Moreno, a former athletic director at St. Mary's, who spent 10 years as a trainer in various professional baseball organizations, a decade at Seton, and a couple years at Mesquite before moving to Basha this year.
"That part continues to increase, but it comes down to communication, and sometimes nobody else likes the answer and they want to shoot the messenger. I've taken many shots, but I'm not going to budge if he or she can't do the job, or risk further injury."
Moreno echoed a dozen trainers in the area when he "wanted the reward again of doing something good for someone else," that he'd lost while being an athletic director and administrator.
For them, the "reward" comes Friday nights. Or Saturday morning's aftermath. Or a random Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday when any kid from any sport returns healthy enough to play on, even if it took two weeks of nightly treatment and a lot of misdirected name-calling by someone else to get there.
"The kids' safety is our responsibility, not (coaches or parents). Ours," Perry trainer Randy Ross said. "It's our job to return them home safe and in one piece. There's a lot of gray area, but whether they like it or not, we're there for the kids whether they like what they hear.
"I don't want a kid to miss out on a big game or a scholarship, and I also don't want a kid to lose his future."
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