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In the past, athletes were ordered to, “walk it off,” when they sustained an injury during a game or a practice. Being tough, playing through pain, was not only a badge of honor, it was a requirement.

The problem was, coaches couldn’t always tell the difference between a boo-boo and a serious injury.

Studies have shown, athletes can’t “walk-off” a concussion.

The safety of high school student-athletes has become a priority, which has led area schools to hire full-time, professional athletic trainers to their staffs.

For the first time, El Dorado has an athletic trainer in house with the hiring of Morgan Atkins. Atkins spent eight years as the athletic trainer in Smackover, which recently hired Magnolia native Jordan Ammons to replace her.

In Junction City, Charlie Wardlaw returns for his fourth year as the school’s athletic trainer.

Smackover athletic director Mike Poff was the first in the county to hire a trainer. When Atkins left, replacing her was a number one priority.

“We decided to find an athletic trainer because, so many times during the course of a school year, we didn’t have as many assistant coaches and stuff like that, we would be at a game and somebody would get hurt. You’d try to coach the game and deal with the kid hurt at the same time. It’s impossible to do both of them well. So, we decided to get an athletic trainer to help take care of our kids,” Poff said.

“I think it’s vastly important. As a coach sometimes, you get caught up in the winning and losing of a game instead of what’s good for the child. If a kid is on borderline concussion and you don’t know, you’ve got a trainer right there to tell you, ‘No, they can’t play.’ That takes all that out of your hands.”

Coaches coach. Players play. Worrying about injuries isn’t the primary concern for either.

“When we have someone get injured in practice or someone tweaks a back or something like that, as a coach you don’t have time to put ‘em through therapy or give them heat treatment and ice treatment and all that. You’ve got to coach,” said Junction City coach Kendall Hutcheson. “We tried to do that the best we could after practices before Charlie got here. Now, let’s say a kid tears his ACL, we don’t have to hope they’re doing their therapy at home. We’ve got someone who can supervise their therapy here and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to, can check their progress and make sure our kids are treated right.

“In-game situations is when it makes the biggest difference. You can concentrate on coaching and not concentrate on running back and forth to a table to try and tape an ankle or fix a cut or whatever. I know in basketball there were times I was trying to tape an ankle on the bench while I was trying to coach a game at the same time. That’s pretty difficult to do. It’s made all the difference in the world. Safety for the kids is huge, too. We’ve got someone qualified to make that call on concussion-type symptoms. It makes everything better.”

Wardlaw, a Henderson State graduate, said knowing the students can make a difference in treating them.

“When I first got here, I didn’t know the kids as well and I had to defer to (coach’s) judgement as to who was trying to get out of something or trying to milk it. But as you learn the kids and you spend more time with them, there have been times I’ve diagnosed something correctly that the doctor missed just because they didn’t know the kid as well,” he said.

As football teams pad up this week for full contact under an intense August sun, the presence of experts could be even more critical. Athletic trainers monitor the team’s practices and pay special attention to the heat and its impact on the students and coaches.

“Charlie does a good job of keeping track,” said Hutcheson. “There are so many heat guidelines now. He does a good job keeping track of all the temperatures and the heat indexes and everything that has to be kept up with. Charlie takes care of that. Plus, he’s more qualified. You know how coaches are sometimes, it’s ice and Ibuprofen. With Charlie, we’ve got someone who knows what he’s talking about. It makes things easier on us.”

Atkins helped keep Smackover’s athletes healthy since 2012. Her presence wasn’t taken for granted.

“We knew we were going to replace her but, yeah, it was hard. Morgan played junior high basketball for me. We’ve known her a long time. So, it’s like we lost a member of the family to El Dorado. At the same time, we’ve gained a new member of the family with Miss Ammons,” said Poff.

“She’s doing well. She knows her job and knows what to do. She has to learn the kids. Morgan knew the kids and the families and Jordan will. It will just take her a little longer to adjust. She’s doing a good job.”

All of the trainers will attend varsity football games home and away. Wardlaw said he will also travel with Junction City’s varsity basketball teams. Atkins and Ammons will be at home games for the other sports throughout the year.

How important is the athletic trainer in Smackover?

“I don’t ever want to not have one again,” Poff said. “They’re so valuable to our school system. Morgan was and now Jordan is. They are very valuable and we’re fortunate that we’ve had Morgan that was so good, and we found a replacement that is highly skilled, too. I think they’re a necessity to every school.”

Wardlaw agreed.

“The importance of athletic training – I can’t even say how important it is in my opinion,” he said. “To get somebody medically qualified to sit out there at practice and protect the children, is protecting their future as well as protecting your school from liability. Athletic training, in my opinion, is invaluable to a high school setting.”

Of course, not every school has an athletic trainer on campus. Parkers Chapel athletic director Elliot Jacobs said his school is looking for other ways to provide for its athletes’ safety.

“We currently don’t have one. We’re in the process of reaching out to colleges for volunteers or interns. We’re also looking at costs of hiring one for games,” said Jacobs, who has the luxury of professional physical therapists attending most of PC’s events in Jeni and Michael Martin.

“His daughter plays basketball so he’s at all the basketball games. His son plays baseball so he’s at all the baseball games. They’re always willing to help out.”

In a safety heat precaution, the Trojans moved the start of today's practice for 4 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In Strong, Coach Jason Porter said hiring an athletic trainer isn’t economically possible.

“It’s rare when schools our size have one. Financially, for us, it’s not feasible. We only have four coaches on staff to start with,” he said. “We usually have a doctor either on the sidelines or in the stands. We’re comfortable with how we’ve been doing it. We have paramedics at every game, and we have access to an occupational therapist. He’s my own. He lives here in Strong. He’s been really good with us. Anytime I’ve had any trouble and couldn’t get to a doctor, he comes to the school or I take them to his house, and he helps us out. He’s a graduate of Strong.”

For all of Union County’s schools, the health of the student-athletes will be paramount. Erring on the side of caution has replaced the old standard, “walk it off.”

“Back when we played, I don’t know how many concussions I played with and broke bones and everything else,” said Hutcheson. “We didn’t always do what was smart but none of us had a trainer around, either. When we played, if you could go, you went. That wasn’t always the smartest decision. Now, we don’t have to worry about that. He protects the kids from themselves a lot of times.”

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