Jun 24, 2024
Meet the 2024 Most Valuable Athletic Trainer of the Year winners
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

In athletic training, excellence is not just a goal but a standard.

Training & Conditioning magazine’s annual Most Valuable Athletic Trainer of the Year award epitomizes this pursuit of distinction. This prestigious accolade recognizes the unparalleled dedication, innovation, and impact of athletic trainers who go above and beyond in their commitment to athlete care and professional development.

Celebrating these trailblazers not only highlights their exceptional contributions but also inspires the entire community to strive for higher standards of excellence in the field.

This year’s winners represent the high school, college/university, and non-traditional settings as we continue to grow the award and recognize industry leaders across multiple environments within the athletic training landscape.

Below, we highlight the three winners—Melissa Portela, Erin Leaver, and Jeremy Howard—and how they achieved excellence within their respective fields.

Melissa Portela, ATC, CPT, Head Athletic Trainer, Sandra Day O’Connor High School, Phoenix, AZ

Melissa Portela is training the next generation of athletic trainers. Not only is Portela a preceptor to athletic training students at Grand Canyon University, but she is also a teacher in Sandra Day O’Connor High School’s Sports Medicine program—a position she’s held for 10 years at O’Connor and 18 overall.

“She plays a vital role in our athletic department and our Career and Technology Education department,” Melissa Hobson, Sandra Day O’Connor High School softball coach, said.

She teaches Introduction to Sports Medicine, the National Academy of Sports Medicine-Certified Personal Training, and the Senior Internship class. As a teacher and an athletic trainer, Portela is used to wearing multiple hats. After completing her college education, Portela played and coached basketball professionally in Denmark, where she also served as the team’s athletic trainer.

“It’s great when the students you keep in touch with because you’ve had them for four years. They go off to college and come back and say, ‘I just passed my boards,’ or ‘I just got into PA school,’ or ‘I’m a nurse now working at this hospital,’” Portela said. “It’s a huge win. And it’s those light bulb moments that you get that can be better wins and victories.”

Portela also urges community work from our student-athletes and those in her classes. Whether it is events surrounding Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or Diabetic Awareness Day, she facilitates and empowers students to be active in their communities and foster an understanding of servant leadership.

“She rallies her students to get behind and support these campaigns. Missy is an excellent representation of athletic trainers,” Hobson said.

Erin Leaver, ATC, MS, PES, Head Athletic Trainer, Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, PA

Most athletic trainers can develop soft skills throughout their careers. Others are simply born with the gift of empathy. The latter can be said for Waynesburg University’s head athletic trainer, Erin Leaver.

“Her infectious demeanor exudes empathy. Coupled with an easygoing personality Erin creates a caring and understanding healthcare environment where the primacy of student-athletes
reverberates through the walls of the entire athletic department,” Andy Palko, Waynesburg University’s Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine said.

It’s shown by her membership of Waynesburg’s “Care Team,” which is charged with identifying students of concern and intervening as early as possible. As a member, one of Leaver’s key
accomplishments thus far have been the attention she has brought to student-athletes’ mental health challenges as well as being an advocate for our profession and the education and skills ATs possess.

“I think about the best clinicians that I’ve worked with [and] that’s really what they excelled at. It was the ability to be really good at reading people and understanding the emotional needs of the moment. When a student-athlete gets bad news or has an injury, that’s all that matters in that we need to stabilize them and make sure that they’re safe. But secondarily, almost just as important, is their soft skills and making sure that they know that they’re loved in that moment and trying to calm them down,” Leaver said.

Her empathy is shown through her regular practice of embodying Waynesburg’s motto of “faith, learning, and service.” She manages the institution’s yearly “No Sew Blanket Day” where they
create blankets for Project Linus. She has also engaged in school mission trips, the most recent being a trip to Costa Rico to assist with the construction of a house and a school classroom.

“Being engaged on the front lines with student-athletes on a daily basis, she understands the challenges they face first-hand. Through this lens, she has been integral in the creation and refinement of a robust referral process that has opened lines of communication on campus ensuring individuals are receiving the proper [mental health] care,” Palko said.

Jeremy Howard, Ed.D, LAT, ATC, CSCS, TSAC-F, Holistic Health & Fitness integrator, Florida Army National Guard

Jeremy Howard’s devotion to improving the Army’s overall health and fitness has earned him decorated recognition. As Florida’s Holistic Health & Fitness Integrator and Chief of Training for the state’s National Guard, Howard is charged with serving more than 10,000 soldiers.

To date, his program has trained over 3,000 Service Members from both the Air and Army National Guards, the Coast Guard, and Active Duty Army. His efforts in improving the health and fitness of the force have earned the state two years running as the 5th healthiest National Guard force of the 54, and the four states above the Florida Air National Guard (FLARNG), none are close in size to their force. Further, his efforts in improving the health of the force resulted in the State earning recognition from the American Heart Association (AHA) as a Silver Award Recipient for the Workplace Well-Being Award, demonstrating that his efforts in his role have created a positive and productive work environment that champions healthy practices and behavior change.

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“It costs somewhere around $100,000 to $180,000 to replace a soldier,” Howard said. “We also address mindset, the spiritual domain, and all that stuff because it’s not just the physical ability that prevents soldiers from being able to be compliant with programs. We want to find out what the cause of the cause is, and then hopefully fix that cause.”

The program he built in the FLARNG has become a flagship program across the National Guard Bureau (NGB) and now the new H2F Integrators for other states are directed to him for best practices to ensure their success.

“He also developed multiple programs within the state for soldier education including the historic first Spiritual Readiness Domain Leaders Course, which received accolades from NGB and focused on improving help-seeking behaviors for Service Members who had been exposed to trauma,” Connor Foy, a Florida H2F Coordinator said.

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