Athletic trainers are the heart of schools’ athletic programs

They are there for the betterment and for the best health and well-being of the high school athletes.

They are there to protect and care for, so often providing the all-important and immediate first care for, the high school athletes.

They are the professional and caring athletic trainers.

And their importance to any and all high school athletic programs may sometimes be taken for granted and often be underestimated.

The high school sports programs’ athletic trainers are “the heart of any good high school athletic program” according to Vin Iovino, the 24-year athletic director at New Canaan High School until 2004 who was at the forefront at realizing that and implementing it 35 years ago.

Up until the late-1980s there were a few schools in the FCIAC which had athletic trainers on site at games and practices to provide immediate care for athletes who sustained injuries.

Now every school has them and athletes receive the necessary and proper immediate care their predecessors from previous generations were not as fortunate to have.

Diane Murphy is now in her 35th year as New Canaan High School’s athletic trainer and former Brien McMahon High School athlete Pete Falla has been with Greenwich High School since 1994. They are two excellent athletic trainers who have seen and been instrumental toward the big strides that have occurred the last few decades toward the improved care for high school athletes.

They are a microcosm of all of the excellent work provided by them and their colleagues at the other 16 high schools in the conference.

And there are hundreds of coaches, athletic directors, former and current high school athletes and parents who can vouch for that.

Falla has experienced all of it from both ends of the spectrum – as a high school athlete and now as an athletic trainer at a very large high school in terms of enrollment and athletes.

“When people ask: What’s an athletic trainer?; I say, in layman’s terms, it’s sort of like a nurse for the athletic programs,” Falla said. “We can have 800 to 1,000 athletes running around on campus for four hours here. When I first started there were maybe four or five athletic trainers in the FCIAC. Now every school in the FCIAC has one and four or five have two because sports are more popular now. There are more sporting options and more participants.

“And because it’s a more litigious society you have to be very thorough,” Falla added. “You have to follow a standard of care. You have to dot your I’s, cross your T’s and you can’t cut any corners.”

Very few FCIAC schools had athletic trainers when Falla was a lineman for the football team and a track and field athlete at McMahon in the late-1980s. His interest was stoked in high school as he contributed toward taping himself and many teammates before football games after learning proper taping technique from his coaches. His guidance counselor, Wayne Mones, recommended the athletic training program at Springfield College and Falla followed that advice and it evolved into his career.

Falla, Murphy and Iovino have seen the advancements, enhancements and the applicable reasons why having certified athletic trainers on the sidelines for games and at teams’ practices is of the utmost importance for high school sports programs.

They pretty much echoed each other and are all adamant in their agreement that coaches should coach and athletic trainers should be there for the athlete’s immediate health care.

“Athletic trainers are health care professionals,” Murphy said. “A coach is a coach. They should be coaching. Leave the health care up to us. We do assessments and we’re constantly assessing athletes. We assess for immediate care and it’s imperative that we’re constantly assessing for long-term progress. That’s what I always say: ‘Let’s prevent long-term problems.’ We want you to be able to still play tennis or golf in your 30s or to be able to pick up your children.”

“What I pride myself on is good diagnostics – good initial evaluation skills where I can home in on the injury,” Falla said. “My skills allow me to get the kid with the best doctor and the best care I can give them as if they were my own kid; and just to make sure they’re not getting to the wrong doctor and they have to go to a second or third doctor to correct mistakes.”

That knowledge and those skills are especially important when it comes to discerning the difference between a bruise, a sprain or a fracture, and then those situations of diagnosing the delicate immediate care necessary with something very serious such as a neck injury.

The coaches in preceding decades, such as the 1970s when Iovino was coaching, had their health kits on their sidelines and they did a fine job in doing the best they could to tend to the sudden sprained ankle or any other assortment of injuries that occurred during games or practices.

But that was then and this is now.

“Up to the 1979-80 season when I was a football coach we didn’t have an athletic trainer,” Iovino said. “I had to be a coach, I had to be a trainer, I had to do it all. Back then I said: If I ever move up in my career and become an athletic director, I’m going to make sure we have an athletic trainer. Coaches aren’t qualified to do that. I wasn’t back then, just as coaches aren’t today.”

“Vinny always had vision,” Murphy said. “He had a vision as to what he thought that having an athletic trainer was something that was very important and that we should have.”

Iovino’s vision drew the support of the administrators in New Canaan. He and Murphy both agree they were in simpatico during their first interview. Murphy knew immediately she wanted the job, Iovino immediately knew she was the right person for it, and her hiring came to fruition in 1982.

“It’s her personality, work ethic, knowledge and enthusiasm that make her excellent,” Iovino said. “She took sports medicine and drove it to the top. When you look at where athletic training has come from and where it’s going, Diane Murphy really is a role model for where it should be going.

“When I was retiring and talking with (current New Canaan athletic director) Jay Egan, and I knew he was going to do a great job, I was giving him some do’s and don’t’s, and I told him the person who is going to protect you and keep your head above water the most will be Diane Murphy,” Iovino continued. “I never had to worry about athletes with Diane Murphy. She truly was a role model and something every high school truly needs.”

Murphy is obviously much more close to the end of her professional career than the beginning and she does have some serious worries about her profession. Especially given the relatively high cost of living in Fairfield County.

“Athletic training is probably one of the most underpaid professions around,” said Murphy, who states that not for selfish reasons but more so with a pragmatic view with her concerns regarding the future for her colleagues and, by extension, the necessary care for the young high school athletes. “I think they’re going to have a shortage (of athletic trainers) down the line. We are health care professionals. I think others are getting out of (the field) because of the hours – the time commitment and working on weekends and holidays – and the low pay. It’s kind of too bad. It’s too bad people are not recognizing the workload and paying (athletic trainers) what they deserve.”

And if anyone doubts their importance, they can check with any current or former high school athletes, parents, coaches, athletic directors and a certain former AD to get confirmation about that.

“The athletic trainer is the heart of any good high school athletic program,” Iovino said. “They are the heart and souls and they bleed life into the athletic program. Even though Diane Murphy is not a coach, let me tell you, she is a resource who makes it all happen.”

New Canaan High School’s Diane Murphy has been the athletic trainer for the Rams for the past 35 years. — Dave Stewart/HAN Network photo

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