Rarely is Brian Wood’s office at Grafton High School empty. The athletic trainer may be taping a basketball player’s ankle, evaluating a cheerleader’s injury, checking a wrestler’s eyes for signs of a head injury, discussing his career or military service or simply listening.
In his second year as the school’s athletic trainer, Wood knows most of the athletes, and they know his door is always open whether they’re injured or healthy.
It’s a job that was virtually unheard of in high schools until about 10 years ago.
When Wood, 32, decided to become an athletic trainer, his goal was to work with elite athletes, like those competing in the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
But a one-year internship at Nicolet High School convinced him that working in a high school and helping students launch their careers was a perfect fit for him.
It’s a job he didn’t know existed until he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee deciding what career path to take. He considered physical therapy, teaching and psychiatry.
“I took a kinesiology class, and we touched on everything, physical therapy, occupational therapy and athletic trainer,” Wood said.
“I didn’t know what an athletic trainer was. When I graduated in 1999 from Mukwonago High School, we didn’t have athletic trainers. If you were hurt, the coach decided if you played or not.”
High school sports has changed considerably since then, and now most schools have athletic trainers who make that decision, he noted.
Wood is employed by Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, which contracts with the school district for his services. He’s in his office from 2:30 to 5 p.m. school days.
But any day there is a varsity event at the school, including Saturdays, he’s there, often until the last athlete leaves. He’s responsible for not only Grafton athletes, but also those from visiting teams.
Wood also attends all away football games because of the large number of players.
“It’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job. Personally, I like that. It keeps things fresh,” Wood said. “Being able to handle stress and stay calm in a chaotic situation is paramount.
“Most kids you’re working with, you’re finding them on the worst day of their lives, and their parents are obviously worried. They may have scholarships on the line, and college scouts may be in the stands.
“But if it’s not safe for the student to return to the game, I make the decision to sit them.”
Working with athletes to recover from injuries is rewarding, he said. In some cases, he’s helped athletes who have played with pain for years.
“To have kids who have had knee pain as long as they can remember, and you give them rehabilitation exercises and they’re pain free for the first time, makes you feel good,” he said. “It’s their hard work, but you were the facilitator.
“A lot of times, you work as their therapist. Sometimes, they come in here bawling, and they just need someone to listen.”
When Wood is working at athletic events, he doesn’t sit on the Grafton bench. He prefers a chair near the end of the court or field.
“I always want Grafton kids to win, but I try to stay a little neutral,” he said.
The football season is the busiest time, not only because of the number of injuries, especially concussions, sustained by gridiron athletes, but also because boys’ soccer and girls’ volleyball are played the same season.
Senior Paige Schommer, a diver who is considering college scholarship offers, has been in Wood’s office almost every day for the past two months, not for rehabilitation but to learn from him.
She wants to be an athletic trainer and eventually an orthopedic surgeon. Wood is her mentor.
“He’s a very good teacher,” Schommer said. “I’ve learned multiple ways to tape and all the different muscle groups. I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been here. It’s a really nice atmosphere. Kids come in just to talk.”
Wood said, “It’s nice from my end because I like teaching. She helps tape, and I get free work.”
Although Wood’s primary focus is high-school athletes, sometimes parents bring younger students to his office to get his opinion of a injury. He’s also had coaches, teachers, janitors and others in the school system seek his advice.
On Monday mornings, Wood shadows orthopedist Matthew Wichman, assisting with evaluations, surgeries and post-surgical procedures. That knowledge helps him develop rehabilitation programs, Wood said.
On Thursday mornings, Wood is at Aurora Sports Medicine Institute in Grafton, where he helps people of all ages recover from injuries.
Wood, who said he was a bench warmer on his high school football team, is now a runner and plans to do his first marathon, the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, in May.
Wood was in the U.S. Army Reserves for 11 years and served with an engineering unit in Afghanistan in 2006. He switched units in 2008 and trained as a medic.
“I got out last February, and I miss it a lot,” Wood said. “I may get back into the Reserves.”
He knows that could involve another deployment, but this time he would use his medical expertise.
Image Information: Grafton athletic trainer Brian Wood taped an ankle for Amanda Hunt. Photo by Sam Arendt