Panthers athletic trainers work tirelessly to keep kids healthy

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By Scott Akanewich

They’re always there.

On sidelines at Liberty Hill games, yes.

But, also long before the lights go on and after they go out.

They’re a three-person team who works mostly behind the scenes and among the shadows, but are as vital to the Panthers’ cause as any playbook.

Melissa Harrington, Susan Slagle and Danny Barringer are Liberty Hill’s athletic trainers and together comprise a formidable team that helps not only keep the Purple-and-Gold from needing treatment, but also helps them rebound when the injury bug does strike.

Twelve-hour days are commonplace in a world where only the three of them are charged with providing support across the entire spectrum of sports and sometimes, it can seem on the surface to be downright thankless.

However, all it takes is a single beam of sunshine to fight its way through the everyday drudgery to make it all worthwhile, said Harrington.

“About 90 percent of the time, it’s like that,” she said. “But, then I’ll get that one phone call or e-mail from a coach or parent which validates everything I do.”

Harrington has been an athletic trainer for 21 years, the last five of which have been as Liberty Hill’s head trainer, where she’s been joined by Slagle and Darringer, who are currently in their fourth and first years, respectively, with the Panthers.

According to Harrington, the reason she got into the business of healing in the first place was an experience she had while a junior high student growing up in her hometown of Odessa.

“I hurt my back playing football,” said Harrington, who was a running back and linebacker and the only girl on her team. “We grew up poor, didn’t have medical insurance and couldn’t afford a doctor. But, we had a person who got me better and that was our trainer.”

From that moment on, she was inspired to pay back what was afforded to her, she said.

“I always wanted to do something in athletics and would’ve loved to have been a doctor,” said Harrington. “But, I realized I could never bring myself to tell someone their loved one wasn’t going to get better.”

Instead, she pursued a career in which most stories usually have happy endings – even one that seems tragic at the time.

“When I was at Cedar Ridge, we had a senior quarterback who broke his leg in October and didn’t walk again until graduation because of complications he had,” said Harrington. “But, eight months later, he was able to walk across that stage.”

Slagle also got into training by relative happenstance.

“When I was a kid, I would go to a place to ride horses and they did personal therapy there, so I really wanted to do that,” she said. “But, when I got to UT, they didn’t have a physical therapy program – only athletic training – so I got into that and realized how awesome it was.”

On the other hand, Darringer has a more diverse background, having served as sports medicine director in his previous post at The Physicians Centre Hospital in Bryan before joining the Panthers, in addition to having done work as an athletic trainer in the past and was spurred to move to Liberty Hill to be closer to family in Austin.

So far, his experiences here have been nothing but good, as he closes out his first school year on the job, he said.

“This place is incredibly appreciative of what we do here as trainers,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the relationships and being able to share in the program’s success.”

With 14 teams to care for – and as many as eight or more competing at the same time – there’s always plenty on the plate for the Panthers’ trainers to concern themselves with, which is a pace that becomes quite dizzying at times, said Harrington.

“Our busiest time of the year is from around Thanksgiving up until the end of basketball season in February,” she said. “We have every single sport going on at one time, so each one of us will have three or more teams each.”

Typically, the training staff will arrive on campus at 6:30 a.m. on an average day and not leave until about 7 p.m.

Unless, of course, there’s a game that night – or especially during football season when the Panthers are on the road, said Harrington.

“On those nights, we might not get back until 2 or 3 a.m.,” she said.

Harrington said her craft has grown by leaps and bounds since she first began over two decades ago.

“The medicine has gotten so much better over the years – it’s not just about taping wrists and ankles anymore,” said Harrington. “We’re able to get kids back on the field so much faster now than we used to.”

Part of being able to do that is to build proper rapport with the athletes, which Slagle has done as she’s increased in her own assuredness.

“I’ve definitely become more confident in myself and my skills,” said Slagle, who has also worked at Liberty Hill Junior High. “I trust myself more and it helps I’ve been here for several years.”

All that being said, though, Slagle said she still finds herself deferring at times to Harrington – who is affectionately known to Panthers athletes as “Mrs. H.”

“For example, when the football team comes in to be taped, there’s a line out the door waiting for her,” she said. “So, I’m kind of over here saying ‘Okay, anybody need to be taped?’ But, I’ve learned a lot from her as far as how to create a tape job – I don’t know how she does it so fast.”

One down side of the job is when an athlete must miss time due to injury and the emotional ripple effect it creates, said Harrington.

“I see them when they’re at their worst and have to find a way to make them better,” she said. “Especially when a kid thinks their world is over – it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”

In order to avoid such situations, Harrington said a big part of the job is to be a detective of sorts.

“As a trainer, you need to be able to recognize the small things before they become big things,” she said. “It’s also a mental health issue now, too, and we monitor that to make sure kids are okay in that regard.”

Only problem with that is sometimes the athletes are slow to lead on to the training staff when something is bothering them.

“All we want is for the kids to tell us what’s wrong so we can help,” said Harrington. “A lot of times they’ll say ‘We thought if we told, you would hold us out.’ But, our goal is for them to play as much as possible.”

Despite the enormous role trainers play in modern-day athletics – even at the high-school level – Slagle said her profession is still misunderstood by many.

“I think a lot of people think we still just tape ankles or only work on football,” she said. “But, there are athletic trainers in so many different settings now – places like NASA and the Army even have them because of everything we do.”

Darringer said he prefers his new setup to when he covered several schools at once, due to the ability to have all his eggs in a Purple-and-Gold basket.

“I like being dedicated to one school, which allows me to be passionate about the school and its athletics,” he said. “It gives me the freedom to be a fan.”

Once the athletes are back in their respective arenas, Slagle said she derives a great deal of satisfaction from knowing she played a small role in helping make it happen.

“Just seeing the kids succeed,” she said. “Especially the ones who I know have been through a lot just to get back out there.”

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