Back to School

Gary Borges went from working at the World Series to his local high school—and both he and his student-athletes are glad he did.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 10.7, October 2000,

For many athletic trainers, working with a professional team is the ultimate goal. For Gary Borges, ATC/L, CSCS, however, stints with four pro teams—including the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets—convinced him that he would be happier at the high school level. That’s why he’s now Head Athletic Trainer at Tenafly (N.J.) High School—tending to the injuries of future stars and kids who play purely for the love of the sport. It’s brought him more appreciation for his profession, and made him something of a hero among the student-athletes. It’s also earned him the Above the Call Award from Training & Conditioning.
“A lot of people ask me why I left pro baseball,” says Borges, who was named 1996 Athletic Trainer of the Year by the Professional Baseball Players Association. “It was the quirks I found in the pros that seem common in sports today—where athletes are concentrating on money and fame. I felt my best bet was to go back to the grassroots level at a high school.”
In the beginning of 1998, Borges landed a job at Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, N.J., where he had interned during his last two years of college. He then moved to Tenafly for the 1999-2000 school year. “This is a spot where I thought I could have the best of both worlds,” he says. “I can use my experience from the professional level and apply it to high school student-athletes.”
Ed Craumer, Tenafly’s Athletic Director, says that Borges has brought the school’s athletic training facilities into the 21st century. “He has seen how the big leagues do it and has adapted that to the high school level for us,” Craumer says.
Borges also maximized the school’s athletic training room, according to Craumer. “The most impressive thing about Gary is his organization,” Craumer says. “He’s taken a room that’s maybe 10 by 12 feet and always seemed to be cluttered and converted it into a state-of-the-art mini training room. It’s wonderful what he’s done to the room in just one year. He’s probably doubled the useful space and got things organized well enough to where he now has a couple of treatment tables, and a whirlpool in a side anteroom. We’re really fortunate that he has the vision to take what he has and make maximum use of it.”
Borges has also brought a new attitude toward athletic training to the Tenafly student-athletes. “At the high school level, a lot of times when kids get hurt, they go to the doctor, then go back in four weeks,” Borges says. “I can work with them in those four weeks, so they can maintain their ability and level of competitiveness both physically and mentally. So when those four weeks are up, they fit right back into the puzzle without missing a beat. I think a lot of the athletes have benefited from that approach. That starts dispelling some of those notions of ‘I have to save myself until game day’ or ‘I can’t work too hard during practice.’”
Ultimately, it’s his skills and way with the kids that earn Borges accolades from both student-athletes and coaches. Borges was nominated for T&C’s Above the Call Award by Marielle Lesnevich, a former student-athlete at Tenafly High School who now attends Wesleyan University. “His experience and skill as an athletic trainer are outstanding,” she says of Borges. “However, the reasons why he is such a good trainer go way beyond that. He has an amazing way of affecting every student that he works with. During all his free periods he can be found in the training room giving advice to students, whether or not they are athletes. He has helped so many students in my school through problems, not just injuries.”
Lesnevich has first-hand knowledge of Borges’ sports-medicine skills. “I had injured my ankle at the start of a volleyball game against our team’s biggest rivals, so I played through the pain,” she says. “At the end of the game I had to go to the hospital for x-rays. I had severely sprained my ankle and was instructed to stay off it for at least a week, but there was no way that could happen because it was my senior year.
“I went to the athletic trainer the next morning, scared that he was going to agree with the doctor and not let me play for a while. He gave me stim every morning and had me ice my ankle in his office during all of my free time. He monitored my ankle and knew that when I said, ‘It’s fine,’ I really meant, ‘It hurts.’ He saw how important it was for me to be playing and helped me get back on the court quickly, but never let me risk further injury.”
Tenafly’s coaching staff also appreciates Borges’ work. “The biggest thing he brings to the program is that he’s working with the kids to prevent injuries from occurring,” says Jeff Koehler, Head Coach of Tenafly’s girls’ volleyball and basketball teams. “A lot of kids used to think the athletic trainer was there only for when they get hurt, but he’s getting them to do preventative things. And, if they do have an injury, he gets them back, and they feel confident. He always makes them feel good about themselves.”
Craumer adds that Borges brings many things to the table besides his athletic training skills. “He’s into nutrition, rehab, and proper techniques for practice preparation such as stretching before and after practice,” Craumer says. “But he not only has done that with our kids, I also think he’s educated our coaches along the way. Some of them have used him almost as a strength and conditioning coach, just because of his vast background. He’s been a terrific addition to the program.”
While he was at Old Tappan High School, Borges started a student athletic trainer program; now, he’s trying to do the same thing at Tenafly. “I’m the coordinator for the medical careers club here,” he says, “and that’s where I draw a lot of kids who want to be ATCs, PTs, or physician’s assistants. I try to teach them a basic knowledge of medicine and pass along my experience of doing this for the past 10 years. Marielle was one of my student athletic trainers when she wasn’t in season, and I have three or four kids who help me out.”
“He saw I was interested in medicine and pushed me to pursue this interest,” Lesnevich says of Borges. “He gave me books to read and taught me some of what he learned. I plan on being pre-med in college. I had always dreamed of becoming a doctor but never thought I could do it. It was Borges who made me realize that if I worked hard enough I could achieve my goal. He told me that all I had to do was believe in myself and always work my hardest. He is an excellent example of this work ethic—he is always working his hardest, putting his all into everything he does, and striving to do more.”
Of course, Borges did not follow a typical career path to Tenafly High School. After graduating from Montclair State in 1993, he landed a job as an assistant athletic trainer for the New Jersey franchise of the World Football League. “Dealing with pro football players of that caliber was my baptism by fire right after college,” he says. “The difference between college and pro levels was interesting—in the pros, it was a lot more of working at high speed and more management stuff than actually taking care of training.
“In 1995, I got a job with the Cleveland Indians,” he continues. “That was the strike year and they needed extra hands because there was such an influx of new ballplayers coming in. The strike eventually broke, but I stayed and we went to the World Series that year. It was great, but very political. I had athletes who were injured and I needed to get them back, sometimes because of who they were, not because of what the injury was.”
The next season, Borges moved to the Mets organization, first working in the minors then moving up the ranks to working with the major league players. “I did a lot of traveling, and I got to see the rehab process from start to finish,” he says. “I even went into the operating room with team surgeons, seeing the procedures the players underwent before being released to me. The best part of that was that I had every medical apparatus and modality at my disposal—I could use whatever I needed to get this person back.
“I did that for a couple of years, but got tired of traveling and wanted to settle down,” Borges continues. “It’s not that glamorous a job, especially for us. We’re on call 24 hours a day in case of injury at the ball park, home, or hotel. Athletic trainers always say they wear a lot of hats, but I don’t think they know the full scope of that until they make it to the pro ranks. You’re not only the ATC, but also the PT, strength coach, the nurse when players get sick, the driver to the team doctor, nutritionist, and even the equipment manager, especially in the minors. So I decided to go back to the high school level, which I never thought I would do,” he says.
At the high school level, he also wears many hats—at Tenafly, besides his duties as athletic trainer, he serves as physical education, health, and driver education teacher. But, it’s comments like Marielle’s that confirm Borges’ desire to work at the high school level—where he makes a difference every day.
And Borges likes keeping a lot of variety in his life—particularly when it means helping others. Two weeks every summer and one weekend a month, Borges serves as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he’s assigned to a marine corps unit as a hospital corpsman. (He’s been awarded the Navy Achievement Medal and the Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal for his services there). He also volunteers as a senior instructor for the Rutgers University S.A.F.E.T.Y. Coaches Course, a state-mandated program for volunteer coaches. “It’s a three-hour course that gives them the ins and out of some of the laws of coaching youth sports, proper coaching techniques and philosophy, and medical information,” Borges says. “I do that once a month through a local hospital on behalf of Rutgers.”
It’s this dedication to helping others that has earned Borges the respect of both student-athletes and coaches at every level he’s worked in.