Industry Leader

Marty Erb has seen many changes in athletic training -- many of which he helped bring about.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.4, May/June 2003,

Athletes and the profession of athletic training in New York state owe a thank-you to a couple of work-avoiding Bucknell University fraternity brothers.

As a freshman at Bucknell in the late ’60s, Marty Erb had no idea what an athletic trainer did. There hadn’t been one at his Pennsylvania high school. He was going to be a doctor, his mother told him. All he knew was that a couple of upperclassmen in the fraternity he’d pledged were student athletic trainers and had sent him down to the training room with instructions to start doing the scutwork nobody else wanted to do.

“This was before underwrap became common in athletic training,” Erb recalls. “We had to use stocking net. The kids would come in when they got their ankles taped and pull the stocking net on and they would tape over the stocking net. Cutting the stocking net was a pain. So they had me come down as a pledge and for one week all I did was cut stocking net. And I got blisters, bleeding blisters, on my hands from continually cutting these six-inch pieces of stocking net.

“But it gave me the opportunity to see what was going on in the training room. And with my interest in going into some kind of medical field, plus my natural enjoyment of athletics, I saw the mix of the two. So when my one week was over and my fraternity brother said, ‘Okay, Marty, you don’t have to worry about this anymore,’ I went to the head athletic trainer and said, ‘Geez, this would be interesting. Mind if I stay down here?’”

More than 30 years later, Erb, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Colgate University, is recognized as a leader of athletic training in the Empire State. He is among a cohort who shepherded the profession through, if not its early years, a crucial time, and raised the profile and respect level of the field. A former President and Public Relations Chair of the New York State Athletic Trainers’ Association (NYSATA), Erb spearheaded successful efforts to get legislation passed designating an Athletic Trainer Week in New York. Now, he’s an appointed member of the New York State Department of Education Committee for Athletic Trainers. And earlier this year, he won the Thomas J. Sheehan Sr. Award, given by NYSATA to honor an athletic trainer who has shown exemplary character, commitment, and achievement.

“I think everyone who has a sincere interest in their profession wants to give back to the profession. And that’s one of the things I wanted to do,” says Erb.

For his leadership, both at Colgate and across the state, Erb receives Training & Conditioning’s Above the Call award for May/June 2003.

Much of Erb’s work away from his Colgate program has been in public relations on behalf of athletic training. He’s the Chair of the NYSATA Hall of Fame Committee, of which he is clearly proud, calling it his brainchild and noting that the Hall has a permanent site in Alumni Hall at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“I want our profession to be respected. I think a lot of people still don’t know what an athletic trainer is,” he says. “You go around and ask people what an athletic trainer is, and a lot of people can’t give you a good answer. I think it’s important for us to make sure the public has an understanding of what we do, how well we do it, and why we do it.”

Because it was considered an advocacy position, Erb had to give up the NYSATA public relations chair when he joined the state Committee for Athletic Trainers. The panel assists the state Medical Board, and its two prime responsibilities are interpreting the state practice law, known in New York as Article 162, and acting as a disciplinary board under the statute.

“We meet at least two to three times a year to go over what’s happening in regard to legislation that may affect the profession,” Erb explains. “Of course, there are a lot of other allied health professions that hopefully work with us but, naturally, may also be competing with us. We have to deal with that. That’s my way to stay involved in the so-called legislative side once I stepped away from the [NYSATA] president’s role.”

Erb is also involved in the fight to get insurance companies to add athletic trainers to their reimbursement rolls in New York state. “In the last couple of months we’ve seen very positive results out of some of the insurance companies,” Erb says. “But with the economy the way it is and some things going on in the insurance industry, insurance companies aren’t all ready to open their doors to a lot of new providers. I think there’ll be pressure, not only from the people in colleges, but from people in recreational sports, as more and more athletes look to us for help. I believe the outcome will be positive, but it may take time.”

As a 30-year veteran, Erb obviously brings a historical perspective to his statewide work and to Colgate. An undergraduate pre-med biology major—curriculum programs were rare then—he went on to earn a master’s degree in athletic training from Indiana University. When Erb was hired at Colgate, he was the school’s first assistant athletic trainer. Now, he has four full-time assistants, two interns, and 15 athletic training student aides. Though the private liberal arts school in the heart of upstate New York has no athletic training academic program and Erb’s student aides are primarily on work-study, he has helped launch a few careers into the profession.

“Perhaps the one I’m most proud of is Steve Bushee, who’s the Head Athletic Trainer at Boston College,” Erb says. “I think I counted seven former students who have gone on in the profession. Most go on to become doctors or corporate executives.”

While Erb has lots of help, his hours are still long—which he says is one of the biggest challenges he and the profession face today. “Intercollegiate athletics now involves so much more of the clock in a 24-hour day than it used to,” he says. “I think it’s wrong to let yourself fall into the hands of just working around the clock and trying to be there at every opportunity. There are times when we can get some time off. In my individual case, probably because I’ve been doing it so darn long and it’s second nature to me, working a 15-hour day and working seven days a week really doesn’t bother me that much. But I do try to protect my staff from getting into that situation.

“We meet on a regular basis, and one of the things I try to do is share my experiences with them. We try to administer our day and our program such that we protect our time. A good example is right now [11:15 a.m.]: I’ve got four other full-time athletic trainers who work with me here at Colgate, but three of them are not in this morning because they are going to have to work into the evening tonight.

“I want our job to become an extremely important part of our lives, but it is not the only part. What I’ve tried to do is make sure my staff understands that personal time is important, and that they’re not going to be compromising their work when they attend to their personal lives.”

One of the top positive changes in athletic training over the past 30 years, Erb says, is the increased breadth of the profession’s responsibilities and what its practitioners can offer athletes, especially when aided by advances in technology. “There’s no question we’re far more effective and proficient in doing what we do for the healthcare of our student-athletes,” he says. “Our responsibilities have become more far reaching. We’re involved not just with injury care on the field, but with prevention, nutrition, time management, and the psychological aspects of injuries and athletic participation. As a profession, we’ve expanded, and that itself is motivating.”

Erb also revels in athletic training’s intrinsic rewards, such as what happened with a potentially disastrous situation last fall. While covering a football game, Erb responded to a player who suffered a ruptured spleen, and his efforts were cited in a letter published in the pages of Colgate’s university-wide magazine. The writer lauded the work of the sports medicine staff when quarterback Tom McCune was injured while diving for a touchdown in a game against Lafayette.

“In stretching out to get the ball into the end zone, Tom exposed his abdominal cavity and the Lafayette kid hit him with his helmet right in the upper-left quadrant of the abdomen,” explains Erb. “It didn’t take too long to identify that he had a significant abdominal injury.

“The time of the injury was just a few minutes before halftime. Surgery actually was started before the game was over, so it was a very short period of time before the injury was identified, he was transported to our hospital, and surgeon-evaluated. By the time I got over to the hospital, he was already out of surgery. He’s doing great. Actually, he’s signed a contract to play pro football over in Europe.

“The profession itself is almost self-motivating,” Erb continues. “If you go into it with a philosophy that you’re there to take care of the student-athletes and return them to their previous pre-injury performance levels, or perhaps even beyond that, I think that’s motivation in itself.”

Erb says that, except for maybe a bit during his first couple of years working, he’s never wanted to move to a bigger school or to professional athletics. At Colgate, he says, he has a good staff, lots of responsibility, a competitive Division I program (with 25 sports, Colgate is a member of NCAA Division I-AA, the Patriot League, and the ECAC), and the right mix of athletics and academics. He applauds the growth of corporate and clinic-based athletic training, but for him, the traditional college setting is best.

“There’s still nothing to me like a Saturday afternoon football game,” he says. “I get butterflies, and I get as excited as anyone else.”