Nurturing one athlete at a time

By Alyssa Giannirakis ’14

Twenty-five years ago, Don McPhillips was in the right place at the right time. He just earned his master’s degree in athletic training from Ohio University and learned John Carroll University was in need of a trainer. The athletic director at the time, Tony DeCarlo ’66G, was looking at other schools’ programs to find someone to fill the position. After interviewing and serving as interim trainer for a year, McPhillips secured the position permanently. Now, as head athletic trainer, he maintains the health of about 700 student-athletes on and off campus.

There’s no typical workday for McPhillips. From managing four full-time athletic trainers, one graduate assistant, and a part-time chiropractor and trainer, to working practices and games, to dealing with emergency injuries, he’s one busy man. The staff divides the responsibilities of covering all home games, many away games, and most practices, which is considerably different compared to 1988.

“When I got here, it was myself and three students,” he says.

Students still work on staff in the department. Looking to enter allied health professions, physical therapy, nursing, and athletic training fields, they gain valuable experience working for McPhillips.



“We’re able to give them hands-on experience to prepare them for the fields they want to enter,” he says.

Student athletic trainer Emma McCarthy ’16, who worked as one in high school and wanted to continue doing it in college, helps students with their rehab, tapes athletes before games, and helps with any minor injuries during games.

“Don is a great teacher because he cares about what he’s doing and always makes work fun,” McCarthy says. “I couldn’t ask for a better boss.”

Every day is different for the staff because it’s difficult to predict what injuries might come through the door and what other challenges might arise throughout the year.

“The weather, especially in the spring, always wreaks havoc on us when teams have outdoor practices,” he says.

McPhillips believes ample practice space and time is one of the biggest challenges facing student-athletes at John Carroll. Although the University has excellent facilities, it’s becoming more difficult to schedule practices and provide trainers to cover them as the athletic department continues to grow. Adding to that difficulty are early morning or late evening practices because students put academics first.

“It can be taxing on them because they have a full day of classes and tests they prepare for, not just a practice or game,” he says. “Not much has changed since I started. It’s always been academics first, athletics second.”

Despite dealing with the challenges, McPhillips loves his job because it’s always changing and evolving.

“It’s not the same old same old,” he says. “It keeps you young because you’re always working with 18- to 22-year-olds.”

Another aspect of McPhillips’ job is teaching. He taught courses, such as Care and Prevention of Athletic Injuries I and II and weight training classes, during his first 12 years at Carroll. After devoting his full attention to training, he returned to the classroom to teach strength and conditioning courses and a health class.

During his undergraduate years, McPhillips worked in an internship with the San Francisco 49ers for a summer and into preseason. He experienced an ever-changing, demanding environment with long hours, yet it was exciting to work with future hall of fame athletes. Although it’s not the NFL, McPhillips has managed large-scale, demanding events when the University hosted the Division III national wrestling championship in 1989 and the women’s volleyball championship in 2009. The most challenging aspect of working such events is keeping everything under control.

“You need to be extremely flexible and think on your feet,” he says.

Having a solid, dependable staff has been a constant help as well.

“We’ve been fortunate to have the people who work with us,” he says. “Our affiliation with the Cleveland Clinic has been helpful, too. Their support has always been extremely comforting because we know they’re going to have top-notch people covering and helping us.”

McPhillips met his wife, Kathy (Frickman) ’95, ’01G while at John Carroll, although only in passing at first. She played basketball and volleyball, two sports McPhillips didn’t help with at the time. After her athletic career at Carroll, they began dating. Now, they live in Beachwood with their three children – Haleigh, Jack, and Samantha.

McPhillips hopes the athletic training program will grow as the University continues to add sports programs and gain more student-athletes. Presently, his staff provides about 4,000 treatments a year for athletes, in addition to covering games and practices. By increasing his staff, McPhillips can add more opportunities and services for talented student-athletes. JCU

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