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Bubba Tyer un-retires to rejoin the Redskins

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 14.5, July/August 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1405/backformore.htm

When Lamar “Bubba” Tyer started working as an athletic trainer for the Washington Redskins, repaired ACLs were routinely wrapped with heavy plaster casts, and strength and conditioning meant little more than lifting dumbbells. Over the next 32 years with the Redskins, including 25 as Head Athletic Trainer, Tyer, ATC, witnessed a tremendous number of changes in the game and the profession, throughout a career that culminated in having his name enshrined in FedEx Field’s Ring of Fame. Now, one year later, Tyer has come out of retirement to become the Redskins’ new Director of Sports Medicine at the request of returning Head Coach Joe Gibbs.

“All it took was for Coach Gibbs to say, ‘I need you,’ and for me to say, ‘Then I’ll come back,’” says Tyer. “It didn’t take any persuasion at all—Joe’s word was good enough for me. We’ve got about six coaches now who were here in the past, and when we see each other in the hallways, we get these big grins on our faces. We know what to expect from each other, and it’s a great feeling.”

Growing up in Nederland, Texas, Tyer loved football, and though an injury kept him from competing, he joined the high school team as equipment manager, working under Head Coach Bum Phillips, who was just beginning his own illustrious career. Tyer graduated from Nederland High School in 1962, then enrolled at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he was mentored by athletic trainer Bobby Gunn, who would later become the first president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

Attending college before formal athletic training programs existed, Tyer majored in physical education, hoping to find a job at the high school level. Instead, Gunn steered him towards the Marines, and Tyer joined the corps in 1968. He spent three years as Head Athletic Trainer for the athletics program at the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps base, where athletes compete against personnel from other military installations near Washington. Next, rejoined Gunn, who had moved on to the Washington Redskins.

The year was 1971, and the Redskins athletic training staff consisted of only two people: Gunn, as the head athletic trainer, and Tyer, as his assistant, who was responsible for the entire strength program. In addition, the expectations of an athletic trainer weren’t clearly stated. “In those early days, part of my job was just to be around the players,” says Tyer. But every day, Head Coach George Allen stopped by Tyer’s office to ask, “What have you done today to help us win?” and every day, Tyer had to have an answer.

Year-round training hadn’t yet been invented, and Redskin athletes spent the off season working second and third jobs, expecting to use the summer to begin getting back in playing form. So in the beginning, Tyer’s duties included playing racquetball to help get players in shape, supervising rehabs with athletes who’d finally come out of their casts, and leading the Redskins through the kind of strength training that people at the time thought was most effective: bench presses, overhead presses, power cleans, dead lifts, and full body lifts.

The game has changed a lot since then, mirroring Allen’s motto that “What you do in the off season determines what you do in the season,” and Tyer’s job changed along with it. For a decade, Tyer found himself doing more and more hands-on work with athletes, until increases in the size of his staff led him to take a more administrative, supervisory role. Tyer has kept pace with the changes by spending most of the last two decades working with younger assistants like Kevin Bastin, Al Bellamy, Keoki Kamau, and Ryan Vermillion, who have all gone on to become head athletic trainers in the NFL. He learned a lot by hiring assistants who specialized in areas where he needed the most help, watching them at work, and using their skills to build the strongest medical team possible.

“Bubba’s longevity in athletic training is extremely remarkable,” says Vermillion, ATC, PT, Head Athletic Trainer for the Carolina Panthers, who worked with Tyer in 2001. “You can’t stay in the NFL for this long without the ability to adapt to a constantly changing environment. There’s more work now, more hours, more players. Today’s athletic trainers need to be well-versed in so many things that weren’t part of the job 33 years ago, and Bubba has been able to make those changes.”

Working under eight head coaches—Allen (1971-77), Jack Pardee (1978-80), Joe Gibbs (1981-92), Richie Petitbon (1993), Norv Turner (1994-2000), Terry Robiskie (2000), Marty Schottenheimer (2001), and Steve Spurrier (2002-03)—Tyer has remained a constant presence, adapting to new demands of the profession. “Over the years, I’ve watched athletic training evolve,” says Tyer. “We’ve gotten smarter and smarter, and the equipment that we’re now using is a huge improvement over the old days, when we used to put athletes on a table and manually exercise them. With the advent of arthroscopic surgery and the knowledge we’ve gained in rehab, we’re moving athletes back to the field quicker than ever.

“But the biggest change,” continues Tyer, “is in the attention we give. The more we specialize, the better we’re able to care for our athletes.”

In one of his earliest rehabs on the Redskins, Tyer remembers helping Rusty Tillman recover from knee surgery and shoulder surgery in the same off season, back in the days when athletes were kept in casts and harnesses for weeks before rehab could even begin to address their mobility issues. In one of his later rehabs, Tyer remembers the broken leg that ended Joe Theisman’s career, followed by a long, difficult rehab—but one that has allowed Theisman to play golf and racquetball, and live a normal life.

In Tyer’s 32 years with the Redskins, the team has gone to five Super Bowls, winning three. He’s been through 14 playoff seasons and seven division titles, working with Hall of Famers Ken Houston, John Riggins, Charley Taylor, and Sonny Jurgensen, who Tyer calls “a neuromuscular genius when it comes to throwing a football.” He’s served on the NFL’s Advisory Committee on Substance Abuse and as President of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS). But the thing that Tyer is proudest of is his relationships with the Redskins’ players, coaches, and assistant athletic trainers.

“The people that I’ve worked with have been fantastic, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve made so many good friends over the years,” says Tyer. “About 30 of us play golf in the alumni group, and we always give each other hugs, joke about the good times, and every now and then we talk about an old rusty knee that someone is limping around with. But as we get older, the memories are all good.”

In 2000, the NFL recognized Tyer as the league’s top athletic trainer. In 2001, Emageon, a medical imaging provider, named Tyer the Super Athletic Trainer of the Year, and earlier this year, the NFL Physicians Society honored Tyer with the Fain Cain Memorial Award as the NFL’s Outstanding Athletic Trainer.

Two years ago, when Spurrier arrived as the Redskins head coach, Tyer moved into the front office, where he helped smooth the transition to a new athletic training staff before retiring in the spring. And in 2003, a few months into their first season without him, the Redskins inducted Tyer into the Ring of Fame, where he’s the first athletic trainer to be honored alongside 40 other Redskin players, coaches, and officials. “It is pretty damn neat,” says Tyer, “to look at the handful of names on the stadium and know that mine is one of them.”

“Along with having done such a good job for such a long period of time, the thing that makes Bubba stand out is his ability to manage an athletic training room,” says Bastin, LAT, ATC, MSEd, Head Athletic Trainer for the Houston Texans, who worked with Tyer from 1989 to 2001. “He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever been around, doing everything from assessing injuries to seeing athletes finish their rehab. Bubba taught me a lot about people skills—finding the balance you need as an athletic trainer to work with the athletes, the coaches, and the medical team. He’s the perfect example of a caring trainer.”

Tyer advises younger athletic trainers to get as much education as they can and follow their certification with additional degrees that can expand their career opportunities. But no matter how much he loves his work, he warns other athletic trainers that professional football isn’t meant for all of them.

“Not everyone is going to enjoy working with this age group, communicating with them, putting up with them,” says Tyer. “For me, it’s the perfect set-up. I love football. I love the competition. I love game days. I love being part of the team. And I love the feeling I get when we’ve won the game, and we’re walking off the field. It’s just fantastic.”

Now, as the Redskins’ Director of Sports Medicine, Tyer is responsible for maintaining medical records for the entire team; coordinating communications between the athletic training staff, coaching staff, and front office; preparing medical reports on potential draftees and free agents; and serving as the liaison between the Redskins’ athletic trainers and the staff at MedStar-Georgetown University Hospital, which provides medical care to the entire team.

“It’s a great role, and I enjoy doing it,” says Tyer. “When I first retired, I thought it was time to get out. But there’s a new enthusiasm here with Coach Gibbs, and I’m excited to be a part of it. I’m 62 years old, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll want to work. But I’ve signed on for one year, and Coach Gibbs said I can stay as long as I want. It’s a great feeling, and I’m looking forward to starting the season.”