A Positive Impact

Students, athletes, and his community are all richer for coming under Al Wilson’s care.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning (and no relation to Al Wilson.)

Training & Conditioning, 11.2, March 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1102/impact.htm

When faced with the frustration of increasing time commitments and coverage obligations, there are some athletic trainers who look fondly toward the day when they can finally hang up their tape and retire. Then there are others who just seem to keep going and going. Al Wilson, ATC/L, Head Athletic Trainer at Killeen (Texas) High School, is among the latter.

Since his early days as the first high school athletic trainer in central Texas, Wilson has become a fixture in the profession and his community—not surprising considering he’s spent his entire 39-year career as Killeen High School’s only head athletic trainer. In that time, he has served countless Texas high school students and athletes. This year alone, he and his staff are overseeing 700 student-athletes.

He has also demonstrated great dedication to bettering his profession. As President of the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association (SWATA) in the mid-1970s, he worked to increase the public’s and school system’s understanding of the state’s new licensure law. As a member of Texas’ Advisory Board of Athletic Trainers, he helped bring the small independent governing body under the purview and protection of the State Department of Health.

For his loyalty, years of service, and the positive role he’s played in the lives of his student athletic trainers and athletes, Training & Conditioning is pleased to honor Al Wilson with March’s Above The Call Award.

Truth be told, T&C is not the first to recognize Wilson for his dedication. In 1988, he was inducted into the SWATA Hall of Fame, and the following year, he became a member of the NATA Hall of Fame. But, despite the string of accolades that continue to fall upon him, friends and colleagues say Wilson is not the sort to go seeking fame. Rather, it’s his generous nature that draws admiration to him.

“Al is not a guy who does things simply to be known or gain recognition,” says Tony Dunn, LAT, Head Athletic Trainer at neighboring Ellison High School, in Killeen, and one of Wilson’s former student athletic trainers. “He’s just always there for others. He mows lawns for the older people in the neighborhood, and he and his wife Gayle bring dinners to locals who are sick. Al is really a prime example of a caring human being and is someone who does whatever he can for his friends. Being in Killeen as long as he has, he has many of them.”

But long before he was gracing halls of fame, Wilson was a simple student trying to help out his football coach. “In 1954, I was a very small sophomore on my high school’s football team,” recalls Wilson. “That year, the coach asked me to learn to tape ankles so I could help relieve some of his work load. He brought in some books for me to study and sent me to Texas Christian University to attend a clinic that taught high school kids how to do basic tape jobs.”

Keen to get involved in the then-burgeoning profession, Wilson started paying closer attention to the athletic injuries that arose at his school, and even went as far as to save newspaper clippings featuring various injuries. “I never had a desire to be a doctor, but I saw athletic training as something new and exciting,” he says.

When he acquired a full athletic training scholarship to Howard Payne University, Wilson began down his career path in earnest—a process quite different from what today’s athletic trainers experience. “Back then, there was no formal education for athletic trainers,” he says. “Essentially, there were only a few athletic trainers working at the major colleges, and an athletic trainer at the high school level was unheard of.

“Because Howard Payne was a small school, we had no professional athletic trainer,” he continues. “I was a student athletic trainer and took care of football, basketball, baseball, and track—because we had no women’s athletics at that time. Since apprenticeships under other athletic trainers didn’t exist, you worked closely with doctors to learn. Physicians would teach you anatomy, and then you’d take other courses related to the human body. Then, at meets and things, we’d share whatever knowledge and experiences we had with our fellow student athletic trainers. But we were pretty much self taught.”

Over the years, these principles of sharing knowledge and camaraderie have remained focal points of Wilson’s teaching and professional philosophy. Willy Kyle, LAT, MEd, Head Athletic Trainer at Clear Brook High School, in Friendswood, Texas, was among Wilson’s first student athletic trainers at Killeen, and he remembers how generous Wilson was as a mentor.

“He was always enthusiastic and he worked hard,” says Kyle. “Being one of the first athletic trainers in our area, a lot of people didn’t know what he did, so he really tried to promote the profession. In the 1960s, he’d take us to student athletic trainer workshops, which was almost unheard of. And he made real efforts to bond our group. When we attended SWATA meetings, he’d always take us out bowling or to play miniature golf together as a team. He was the first athletic trainer I can remember who tried to make a team out of student athletic trainers, rather than let us feel like a bunch of individuals running around carrying water. That really instilled some pride in us to do our best.”

That same generosity and enthusiasm came across in the classroom and on the field as well. “Even then, he was a very hands-on teacher,” says Kyle. “He would give you all the theories, but then he would let you tape the ankle as well. He was also good about giving you the reasons why the ankle might be sprained, and what the mechanism was that caused the injury. And he always involved us in the follow-up, allowing us to experience both the responsibility and the reward of working with the athletes.

Looking Back
With nearly 40 years of professional experience behind him, the former SWATA President and former Chair of the Texas State Licensing Board has witnessed, first-hand, the advances and drawbacks the profession has undergone. Wilson says not only have the educational standards changed, but so too have training and rehab techniques, as well as the athletes themselves.

“Athletes didn’t used to be as professionally minded as they are now,” says Wilson. “Then, every athlete played three or four sports. Now, at bigger schools, it’s hard for a kid to play more than just one sport, and within that one sport they’re becoming much more specialized. Also, in some sports they’re just getting bigger and bigger. I remember when a 185-lb. football player was large. Now, there are 300-lb. players—and many are more inclined to have injuries because we’re building them up, yet we’re not maintaining flexibility.”

An area Wilson has witnessed huge strides in is the effectiveness of even the most basic modalities ATCs now use. “When I first began in athletic training, we didn’t have ultrasounds,” he says. “We used ice occasionally, but we didn’t know its value, so we primarily focused on massage and heat. Now I find a lot of success with contrast bath treatments, but even 15 years ago, the benefits of this approach weren’t well known. And 40 years ago, you definitely didn’t go right out of hot into cold.

“And rehab work was in its infancy then,” he continues. “There was some physical therapy work being done, but rehabilitation mostly comprised doctors telling patients to get well.”

Thanks to licensure requirements, more standardized educational efforts, technological advances, and the proliferation of athletic trainers themselves, Wilson says the biggest change is his ability to do his job even better than before. “My style of athletic training has definitely changed over the years,” he says. “I’m a little more cautious than I once was. I recognize the seriousness of injuries, the dangers of certain things, and I better provide for the athlete than I once did. And that’s because I have more facilities for athletes to use, and more athletic trainers are sharing better information.

Still Going
Although Wilson is now 62, his involvement in the school and Killeen community has waned little in four decades. For 18 years he’s been a volunteer firefighter, and he’s been a certified CPR instructor with the American Red Cross even longer. Between his volunteer activities, church involvement, the demands all athletic trainers are subject to, and his involvement in professional organizations, one might wonder how he’s managed to juggle it all for so long. For Wilson, the key has been setting guidelines for himself and abiding by them.

“I do all I can at work and in my community, but I try not to take things home with me,” he says. “The morning after Friday night football games I’ll go up to the school to evaluate what happened that night, but I’ve always used this as a rule: ‘From noon Saturday until noon Sunday is 24 hours that I’m spending with my family—no matter what.’”

And while no one is eager for him to leave his post, all wonder why he hasn’t yet retired—nine years after he could have taken his full benefits according to Texas law. “I think being around these kids has kept me active and young,” he explains. “I know that retirement is in the future, but right now my health is still good and I’m able to keep up with what I’m doing, so I plan to hang around.”

When he does leave Killeen High School, an array of student-athletes and student athletic trainers will owe him a debt of gratitude, as will the many professionals he’s cultivated and worked with over the years. “Al Wilson has been an outstanding role model for young men and women for years,” says Kyle. “He’s influenced countless lives through his compassion, his words of encouragement, and his efforts to help kids succeed. He’s someone who I think molded our character on ethical standards by his own example, and that helped us all later on in life.”