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Siege the Day: The Tampa Bay Bucs Seasonal Athletic Training Internship Experience

by, Manny Ozoa, MS, ATC


Being offered a seasonal internship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the 2015 season was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Not many Athletic Trainers are privileged to have the opportunity to work in the National Football League and experience what goes on through the daily functions of an NFL athletic training room. Therefore, I made it a mission to act as a human sponge and absorb as much knowledge as I could throughout my time with the Buccaneers.

To become a seasonal athletic trainer with the Buccaneers, I went on a journey that took me to both the west and east coasts of the United States. As a junior at Illinois State University, I began applying for NFL internships and was fortunate enough to be invited by Manny Rivera, Assistant Head Athletic Trainer of the San Francisco 49ers, for a summer camp internship. Overall, it was an eye opening experience – I got a little taste of what it takes to become a successful NFL Athletic Trainer and it opened multiple doors of opportunity to build a solid foundation for my career. From there, I went on to graduate school at the University of South Florida to refine my clinical and interpersonal skills. During my time at USF, I shadowed orthopedic surgeons at various medical offices. Additionally, I provided outreach coverage to local Tampa high schools and Busch Gardens through Select Physical Therapy. By working hard and developing positive relationships, I found myself covering spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays, a second training camp with the Buccaneers and was eventually offered a seasonal internship. The rest is history.

One of the most important lessons I learned transitioning from a training camp intern to a seasonal intern was that I was an essential part of the medical team. Bobby Slater, Head Athletic Trainer for the Buccaneers, described each member of our staff as a ”cog in a big machine”. Each one of us had a special job to do in order for the unit to fully function. Salvador Lopez and I were both selected as seasonal athletic trainers and worked very closely together throughout the year. Our responsibilities ranged from injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of our athletes, to the set up and breakdown of practices and games, to aiding in inventory maintenance and injury documentation through eClinical Works, the NFL Electronic Medical Records System.

Being a product of a seasonal internship has helped me hone invaluable skills and gain insight into the daily functions of an NFL athletic training room. Working with some of the most elite athletes in the world requires you to become a master of multi-tasking and interpersonally manage constant pressure. The NFL is a work environment that is constantly evolving. Whether it be a change in the weekly schedule, learning a new medical practice or a roster change to accommodate the needs of the team, you need to be able to quickly adapt to provide the best possible health care available. Players are constantly coming in and out of the athletic training room for a stretch, taping, wound care and so on so being able to work with multiple athletes at the same time is essential to running a smooth operation.

Throughout the season I was introduced to state-of-the art modalities that are not found in most high school and college settings. I learned how the Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill and the Hydroworx underwater treadmill could improve functional movement early on in the rehabilitation process. During the preseason, our staff became educated in the use of laser therapy to reduce inflammation in acute and chronic injuries. Combined with up-to-date evidence based practice, I have learned safe approaches to return our athletes to play as quickly as possible. Progressing an elite athlete from a vulnerable state can be a strong mental challenge. While it was intimidating at first to work with the more high-status athletes, it became easier over time to deal with their personalities and instruct them how to do an exercise and progress them through their rehabilitation. Through Bobby, Adrian (Dixon), Scott (DeGraff), and John’s (Ames) mentorship, I have gained invaluable confidence in my education, my hands-on skills and most importantly myself.

With NFL Athletic Trainers being responsible for the complete health care of their athletes, the ability to anticipate their medical needs is vital to keeping them on the field and returning them to play as safely and quickly as possible. To become a good athletic trainer in the NFL, you need to become a forward thinker. Preparation for each day often begins days before so that when something unexpected happens, the athletic training staff will be ready for it. The players come first before anything else so Sal and I take extra steps to make sure the medical supplies, coolers, and water bottles for practice and game day are taken care of ahead of time so that they get our undivided attention. At the beginning of our internship John told us, “Five things that are unexpected are going to happen to you each day and your ability to handle those five things is what will take you from being a good athletic trainer to a great athletic trainer.” By functioning as a team, we discovered each other’s strengths, weaknesses and learned how to systematically handle our daily duties. Like the ”Next Man Up” mentality with the players and coaches, we communicate closely together to have each other’s backs and make sure all of our work gets done.

At the professional level, I have realized that your ability to engage and relate to your athletes is just as important as your clinical skills. Being a professional while being personable builds your rapport with the athletes further creating confidence and trust in you. What really makes a seasonal internship so unique and worthwhile are the athletes and the people you get to work with. Our work environment and atmosphere revolve around the physical and mental well-being of our athletes so knowing how to keep the mood light and keep them focused on staying healthy can positively affect the organization’s success. Over time, I discovered being an athletic trainer in the NFL is not a job – it is a lifestyle, making it one of the most demanding, rigorous, and rewarding professions around. Here’s some advice from my experiences on how to be successful as an NFL intern and athletic trainer:

  1. Develop your ability to listen. Listening is a skill. Spoken words are not just meant to be heard but to be understood.
  2. Pay attention to detail. Understand the specifics of the task at hand. Thoroughly check your work. Bobby put it best for me: “Plan your work, work your plan.”
  3. Become a team player and a people person. Always have each other’s back. Do the right thing and do more than expected. Be consistent in the things that you do. Be emotionally intelligent, be personable and be yourself.
  4. Learn from your mistakes. Be able to take constructive criticism and move on. If you make a mistake, respond in the right way. “Circumstances do not make the man. They reveal him.” Take the extra step to not make that mistake happen again.
  5. Stay hungry. Always look to improve your clinical and interpersonal skills. Consistently evaluate yourself to see what you can do to improve. Create a sense of appreciation for where you are. That mindset will take you further.
  6. Take pride in the things you do. Bring a positive attitude to work each day. Be able to adapt to different situations. Be proactive in the rehabilitation and treatment of your athletes. This will help you develop good habits and gain confidence in your skills. Our profession is about compassion, camaraderie and commitment. Take pride in the things you do – the rest will take care of itself.

Moving forward, I will always look back at my time with the Buccaneers with great honor and appreciation of the opportunity and mentorship that I have been given. I have been able to make life-long friendships with fellow interns and staff and understand the profession in greater detail. I look forward to learning more and more each day.