Hamilton County haves and have-nots
Has a trainer: Central, East Hamilton, Hixson, Ooltewah, Signal Mountain
Does not have a trainer: Brainerd, East Ridge, Howard, Lookout Valley, Sale Creek, Tyner
Clinton Harris likely is alive today because Ted Gatewood, his football coach, had decided an athletic trainer was a must for East Hamilton High School.
Early in the 2009 season, Harris, a starting linebacker as a sophomore, sustained a concussion. After sitting out two weeks, he was warming up with his teammates at Finley Stadium for a game against Lancaster Christian. He went through the mandatory contact for players returning from concussions but then dropped to the turf.
The trainer, Brandy Baldwin, talked with Harris and then informed Gatewood she wanted to get an ambulance for him. While his teammates were celebrating their win, Harris was undergoing emergency surgery to relieve pressure on the brain caused by a subdural hematoma.
"I remember going to the hospital after the game and being told that if she hadn't had him taken to the hospital that he might've died," Hurricanes assistant coach Steve Garland said. "If he had gone home, he could've died in his sleep."
While a trainer still is considered a luxury for some schools, few football coaches want to be without one, although they are not provided or subsidized by the Hamilton County Department of Education.
"We have no working agreement with any organization to provide trainers," HCDE deputy superintendent Lee McDade replied in response to an email query. "It is up to each school to retain a trainer."
It's a prickly concern for coaches, parents and players such as Harris, who never again strapped on football pads. While the school board provides no financial support for athletics beyond coaching supplements, most Hamilton County schools are strapped financially and their athletic programs are expected to be self-sufficient.
"In many cases, [schools not having trainers] is a business decision made by the sports medicine and physical therapy clinics that hired the athletic trainers," said Scott Bruce, a certified and licensed athletic trainer who lectures in and directs recruitment for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's graduate athletic training program. "And some of the schools aren't covered [by trainers] because of the makeup of families that don't have good insurance."
Gatewood is one coach who would be very hesitant to go into a contact situation without a trainer.
"I won't say I wouldn't do it, but if we're going to be in contact that day, I want [a trainer] close by. Their value is paramount," he said. "It's a great safety net to have, because you have somebody that knows the human body and what's going on."
Some Hamilton schools have trainers full-time, others part-time and some not at all, and the situation is similar in surrounding counties. Grundy County has a trainer on hand for Friday night football games; Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties have emergency personnel most Friday nights. The schools in Bradley County have trainers funded by outside sources.
"We have a unique relationship with an employee at Erlanger. He gets no money for being on the sidelines or at courtside," Bledsoe football coach Jason Reel said.
Two of the three high schools in Marion County have trainers for football games. The other does not but has tried to secure one.
"We pray and hope that nobody will get seriously injured," Whitwell's Billy Barnhart said. "We do have an EMT on call on Friday nights."
Ringgold, Ridgeland, Gordon Lee and Heritage in northwestern Georgia are among the schools that have trainers.
"Our trainer is provided through Erlanger Sports Medicine and shared with Gordon Lee," Heritage coach Tim James said. "Each player at HHS must pay a $30 fee, which covers him or her for all sports. All fees collected throughout the year go to Erlanger to help offset the cost."
Sale Creek is getting by this year, its first for football, with a player's dad who is a paramedic. Tyner often is joined for games played locally by Dr. Eric Clarke, a local orthopedic surgeon who volunteers his time, and Howard has someone part-time, at least for most home games.
"I know the county does not fund them and we do not have a booster that pays for it. I don't know how she is paid," Howard coach Michael Calloway said.
Earlier this season at a Brainerd-Red Bank junior varsity football game, a player suffered a dislocated knee yet remained on the field for about 20 minutes until an ambulance arrived, because both of the competing teams were without an athletic trainer or medical help.
"We just do without right now," said Red Bank coach E.K. Slaughter, whose program lost its trainer access this year after taking $3,000 to have a trainer, at least part time, last year.
There are varying plans with the Hamilton schools that have trainers, most collecting fees and then forwarding that money to their athletic training partner, whether it's the Center for Sports Medicine, Benchmark or others.
Coaches are concerned not just about injuries to players but also potential lawsuits.
"Not having a trainer is my biggest complaint as a coach," Lookout Valley's Tony Webb said.
"When I was at East Paulding [in Georgia], we didn't have a trainer for a couple of years and it was a nightmare," Walker Valley coach Glen Ryan added. "I don't like the idea [of not having a trainer], not with all the things that can happen and lawsuits. We say we're about safety. Then let's find a way [to get trainers] and get it done. Taking short cuts will cost you in the long run."
The HCDE does have liability insurance for its coaches and teachers, "and it's a very comprehensive policy," McDade said. "If a child were injured, we do have basic coverage if the parent is not insured."
Additionally, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association has catastrophic injury insurance for all athletes participating in events it sanctions.
Bledsoe's Reel still lives daily with the practice-field death of a player two years ago. Kainen Boring had a previously unknown physical condition not related to football exertion but died on a field.
"As far as first responders, we [coaches] are trained in CPR and first aid and we stay up to date," Reel said. "A trainer, though, is a basic need, if not necessity. I have brought the issue before [our] school board and we're working to figure out how [a trainer] would be compensated. Other than getting helmets reconditioned, this is the most important issue [football coaches] are facing."
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...