The goal is simple.
“We’re just trying to get the words ‘athletic trainer’ out to moms, PTAs, athletic directors, legislators, everyone,” said Rick Burkholder—the Chiefs’ Vice President for Sports Medicine and Performance. “Ideally, you’d love to have an athletic trainer at every sporting event in America. It’s about safety. Financially, some people want to cut it out because they think it’s a luxury.
“It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity.”
Burkholder, along with many on his staff, has spent time this offseason and past offseasons working and advocating on behalf of athletic trainers at all levels.
This included a “Hit the Hill” day in which Evan Craft—one of Burkholder’s top assistant athletic trainers with the Chiefs—went to the state capital in both Kansas and Missouri to help promote and discuss the importance of athletic trainers at the younger levels.
“We have people’s ears because of the positions that we hold in the NFL,” Craft explained. “For example, I got to meet with (Missouri) Governor [Mike] Parsons, who is a massive Chiefs’ fan. I had talked to him back at training camp and told him I’d love to sit down with him for 10 minutes to talk through some stuff, and he was absolutely all for it.
“I was able to go to him and bring people with me who are a little more involved in the Missouri side of things to not only open that door but talk about what they’re dealing with at the high school levels.”
This is about education. Athletic trainers are health care professionals by trade, and the point Burkholder, Craft, and many others advocating this point are making is that it shouldn’t take a situation in which people realize they should have had an athletic trainer present to jumpstart the process of making sure everyone has one there in the first place.
It’s about being proactive and understanding the importance of having someone there who knows how to properly handle every situation that may arise, while also helping promote how these athletes can best take care of their bodies even before an injury as preventative maintenance is as big of a focus for their jobs as is handling injuries as they occur.
“It’s now just a part of sports, but only 37 percent of high schools across the country have full-time athletic trainers,” Burkholder added. “Athletic training needs to be just as important to a program as coaching. It’s essential, and so [Evan] going out to see legislators and discuss these things gets that message out there.
“And that’s our obligation. We’re fortunate enough to be hired by the Hunt family to do our jobs with great athletes, but it also comes with a little bit of responsibility. People want to talk to us and as hot as this team is right now, it gives you the break-the-ice moment to talk about athletic training. It’s hard to blindly go in there and discuss these issues.”
The coaches and administrators who understand this idea are grateful to get their foot in the door with those who can affect real change and policy.
“They just want an in,” Burkholder noted of those at the lower levels. “That group of people is hungry, and they just run through the door and attack. It’s a fun thing to watch.”
The NFL has done its part to try and help this issue as well—establishing grants for underserved high schools to employ athletic trainers. They see themselves as all a part of the same family, and it’s one that’s very much a tight-knit community.
“This profession, just because you’re in the NFL doesn’t mean you’re better than the people at the high schools. You’ve just gotten a break,” Burkholder added. “There are some high school and college athletic trainers, I call them all the time. They have some years on me, and they’ve seen everything that’s come down the pike.
“There are 45,000 athletic trainers around the country, and we’re all pretty close.”
In addition to working closely with local high schools and influencers—as well as the University of Kansas Health System, which often serves as a conduit between athletic trainers dealing with injuries and situations in which the Chiefs could assist because they often have the experience with the same situation in the past, Craft and Burkholder also recently spent a day with the students at Kansas State University.
They were able to talk with and answer questions from the next generation of athletic trainers, which is exactly the role that Tiffany Morton—another one of the Chiefs’ current athletic trainers and one of just a handful of full-time female athletic trainers in the NFL, has taken on recently.
Morton, who has been featured by Gatorade in national spots featuring female athletic trainers, has become a resource for females of all ages who aspire to enter this field.
“I didn’t have the information (when I was going through this process) and so being that contact for women who are interested in this profession is rewarding,” she explained. “It’s more personal and 1-on-1 type-of-conversations with those who reach out, but it’s been great to be that resource for people.”
Led by Burkholder, the Chiefs’ athletic training staffs’ goal is simple—to take care of athletes of all ages and to assist the next generation of athletic trainers to do the same. They see it as their job to not only take care of the Chiefs’ players but to use their influence and standing to help affect positive change for their profession into the future.
They understand they have a long way to go, but they also know how important it is to raise awareness of the need for athletic trainers at every event across the country.