Jun 6, 2017
Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award
Erika Eaton

Announcing our 2017 Winner: Joe Cunnane, Lockport Township (Ill.) High School

This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

Back when Joe Cunnane, MSEd, ATC, was a high school athletic training student aide, he witnessed a football player suffer a subdural hematoma during a game. Immediately, the on-site medical personnel jumped into action, with Cunnane helping to retrieve the paramedics and deliver supplies to the athletic trainers. Yet, in the midst of the commotion to treat the athlete, one thing became perfectly clear to Cunnane: Without the athletic training staff, there is little chance that the player would have survived.

The experience had a two-fold effect on the young sports medicine protégé. Not only did it solidify Cunnane’s desire to make athletic training his career, but it also instilled in him a lasting respect for head injuries. Now, as Head Athletic Trainer and teacher at Lockport Township (Ill.) High School, he’s used the lessons learned from the incident to develop a cutting-edge sports medicine program dedicated to concussion management and injury prevention.

Cunnane’s impact extends much further than his high school walls, however, as he spends much of his free time furthering the athletic training profession. He currently serves on the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association’s (IATA) Board of Directors and has been active on its Secondary Schools Committee for nearly two decades. Further, he hosted the IATA’s Concussion Seminar from 2001 to 2005, which educated the state’s athletic trainers about head injuries, and won the association’s Distinguished Service Award in 2015.

For his nearly 25 years of above-and-beyond dedication to the profession and to keeping athletes healthy, Cunnane has been selected to receive Training & Conditioning’s 2017 Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award, sponsored by School Health, to honor athletic trainers at the high school level. Cunnane was nominated by Lockport Township’s Athletic Director James Prunty, who cannot speak highly enough of Cunnane’s passion and commitment.

“I am in my 41st year as an educator, and [Joe] is without a doubt the finest athletic trainer with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working,” Prunty wrote in his nomination. “It is both rewarding and inspiring to observe him work with our student-athletes, as he is proactive in preventing potential injuries and extremely caring as he nurtures [athletes] during rehabilitation. It gives me a sense of security knowing we have Joe as our athletic trainer because I understand the quality of his work.”

Serving nearly 2,000 student-athletes each year, Cunnane has helped the Lockport Township athletic training program flourish from almost nothing into one of the most progressive in the state. “I was the first one at Lockport Township to hold the full-time athletic trainer and teacher roles,” he says. “My original athletic training room here was smaller than the office I now have. The school has grown along with the sports medicine facility, and I now have a staff of three assistants. It’s been neat to be a part of that.”

Along the way, Cunnane has never forgotten the head injury that inspired his sports medicine career. In fact, he’s channeled it to lead the charge on concussion management by introducing the ImPACT baseline concussion test to Lockport Township in 2000, and, later, to the state of Illinois. “Joe has been a leader in our state with regard to concussion education programs and neurocognitive baseline testing,” wrote Prunty. “Lockport Township was among the first schools in Illinois to offer cognitive baseline testing to student-athletes because of the initiative Joe took in facilitating the program.”

And it was not a simple task. “When we first implemented ImPACT, nobody else had done it yet,” says Cunnane. “It was a big unknown, and we had to sell it to the school board and administration. Fortunately, we were able to answer their questions, and from that moment on, we ran it without a problem.”

Now considered part of the standard return-to-play protocol, Cunnane’s involvement with ImPACT-along with the concussion seminars he facilitated statewide-spread the message that baseline testing could make a difference in rehabilitating a concussed athlete. He has since shared the success of ImPACT at the Great Lakes Athletic Trainers’ Association’s symposium.

Cunnane’s work to promote baseline concussion testing is just one piece of a broader devotion to his athletes. His investment in their lives is founded on an enthusiasm for the high school setting that has only grown over his time at Lockport Township.

“People don’t understand how much fun it is to work with high school athletes,” Cunnane says. “I enjoy it because there is a lot of variation in athletic ability. I get to work with kids who go on to the pros, as well as kids who may not be all that athletic, but still enjoy playing sports. They all have goals, and I have the opportunity to help them achieve those goals.”

His approach to care starts with setting high standards for student-athletes. “In our athletic training room, we want the kids to be accountable,” Cunnane says. “I set a certain tone, and our kids understand the importance of it and embrace it pretty quickly.”

Part of what makes this strategy successful is Cunnane’s ability to connect with athletes on a personal level. “He isn’t just there working, he gets involved,” says Josh Oster, a former athlete at Lockport Township who is now the school’s Head Wrestling Coach. “He talks to the athletes to see how things are going and takes a genuine interest in them as individuals.”

Once this foundation has been set, Cunnane can then read athletes to discern when they might need encouragement in their recovery. “As an athletic trainer, you need to be a little bit of a psychologist,” says Oster. “Joe is good at that. He knows when to push an athlete or when he needs to be more therapeutic and patient.”

“Joe can recognize when a student-athlete might be a bit hesitant to return to play,” echoes Prunty. “He talks them through the whole process of returning, and he’s skilled at convincing the youngster that they are ready.”

This ability to connect with people transfers to working with coaches. “It may seem like a small thing, but when coaches see you are a part of their program, it makes a big difference, especially when you first start working with them,” says Cunnane. “I remember early on, if we had a track meet and I wasn’t doing anything, I would pitch in and set up the hurdles. You can’t be afraid to lend a helping hand.”

Cunnane’s desire to assist coaches doesn’t stop there. “He provides coaches with a lot of research on how to incorporate injury prevention in the weightroom,” says Oster. “For example, he sends me and the football coach techniques we can use to increase hip flexibility or mobility because those benefit both our sports.”

Connecting with and educating parents is also a mission of Cunnane’s. “I give a talk at our preseason parents’ meetings,” he says. “Whether we discuss performance-enhancing drugs or concussion care, the parents are able to see that there is a real person caring for their child.”

When an injury does occur, he is careful to keep parents in the loop. “I think phone calls home are critical when kids are hurt,” Cunnane says. “We make sure parents understand that return-to-play is a process and let them know how their child is advancing each step along the way. It doesn’t matter if the news is good or bad-parents are appreciative when you communicate.”

The updates have the added benefit of keeping athletes accountable in their rehab. “When a kid is working on treatment with Joe, he will send them home with a plan,” says Oster. “And then he will call the parents to make sure they know the plan, too.”

Cunnane’s mission to educate and inform extends to his work enhancing the athletic training profession. “I have spoken at a few universities on the topic of dealing with Type 1 diabetes in athletes,” he says. “I hosted some strength seminars the last couple of years, and I have been hosting a webinar on cramping and nutrition this year. I work 70 to 80 hours a week at Lockport Township, but I enjoy giving these presentations on the side.”

In addition, as a member of the IATA’s Secondary Schools Committee, Cunnane will visit several school board conventions in the coming months to highlight the importance of having athletic trainers at the high school level. “School boards need to know how much an athletic trainer can help the overall well-being of student-athletes,” says Cunnane. “The potential for catastrophic injury is much less when you have athletic trainers in place whose primary role is to prevent and manage those incidents.”

To further this message, Cunnane encourages other high school athletic trainers to tout their own value. “A lot of times, we don’t realize that the things we are doing are unique,” he explains. “We do them just because they seem like the right things to do, and we don’t realize that other people might find them interesting. Every time I go to meet with other high school athletic trainers, I learn new tricks.”

His top priority, however, is always his athletes. “I take a lot of pride in our kids being healthy and prepared on the field,” says Cunnane. “I’ve been a part of eight state championships, and those were all awesome. But it’s also been great to make sure every senior has the chance to play in their last game-that they aren’t standing next to me injured. I do everything I can to give those kids that special opportunity.”


The following athletic trainers were named finalists for this year’s Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award.


The administration at Goochland (Va.) High School knows how lucky they are to have an athletic trainer, as other schools in their district do not. Even luckier is that they have Melissa Black, ATC, as Head Athletic Trainer and Sports Medicine Instructor.

As an athletic trainer, Black has been steadfast in her desire to make sports safer for student-athletes. She has taken charge of the Concussion Management Team for the county, where she developed a countywide concussion policy.

Her caring attitude doesn’t stop with Goochland’s student-athletes, though. “It is not uncommon for other schools to request her assistance when visiting for away games,” wrote Goochland Athletic Director Bryan Gordon in his nomination letter. “Her professional assistance is valued by schools across the district.”

Black extends her efforts beyond her immediate area. She was directly involved in the January 2014 Virginia Athletic Trainers’ Association’s Hit-the-Hill Day, which was focused on earning legislative support for bills that would affect the abilities of athletic trainers in emergency situations.

As an educator, Black’s passion for teaching and caring for students and athletes is apparent in her accolades and accomplishments, which include 2006 Goochland High School Teacher of the Year and 2014 Region 1 Virginia CTE (Career and Tech Ed) Creating Excellence Award for Orthopedic Evaluations and Modalities for Student Athletic Trainers. Further, she created the sports medicine program at Goochland and served on the Virginia Department of Education Curriculum Review Team for Sports Medicine I and II.


As the Head Athletic Trainer at Orange (N.C.) High School, Emily Gaddy, MS, LAT, ATC, PES, has gone above and beyond to help coaches and players. Her efforts began shortly after taking the position at Orange in 2012.

For starters, Gaddy successfully petitioned the Orange County Board of Education for funds to purchase an ultrasound and electrical stimulation machine. She has also gotten a local orthopedic group to provide free physical therapy services to the school’s athletes. This has allowed athletes to get valuable treatment without having to miss school or be limited by the financial costs.

In addition, as concerns about concussions in football mounted, Gaddy worked with the Duke University Sports Medicine Concussion Clinic to provide Orange student-athletes with free online baseline concussion testing. Further, this past year, Gaddy worked with a local university to install sensors in the Orange football team’s helmets as part of ongoing concussion research.

This commitment has helped Gaddy gain the respect of student-athletes and peers alike, and her work has not gone unnoticed. Gaddy received the Orange County Schools Employee Excellence Award in 2016 in recognition of the life-saving assistance she provided to an opposing football team’s player.

Whether it’s a small gesture or major contribution to player safety, Gaddy often goes beyond the standard duties of an athletic trainer. Thanks to her hard work, Gaddy has inspired students to follow in her footsteps. Since 2012, the number of athletic training student aides at Orange has grown from one to 10.


Creating a foundation of trust and compassion with student-athletes is front and center for Ripley (W.Va.) High School Athletic Trainer Steve Lough, MS, ATC. Throughout his eight years at Ripley, Lough has always made himself available for each and every athlete. For this dedication, Lough was recognized as Athletic Trainer of the Year by the West Virginia Athletic Trainers’ Association in 2012 and 2015.

“He has established a wonderful working rapport with student-athletes, coaches, staff, and parents,” wrote Ripley Assistant Principal Beverly Shatto in her nomination letter. “He is diligent in his attempts to serve all student-athletes in a thorough, yet timely, manner.”

Along with his duties as athletic trainer at Ripley, Lough serves as the school’s Athletic Director and teaches courses in athletic training. Within the greater Ripley community, Lough is always on the lookout for someone in need.

For example, last summer, the state of West Virginia experienced devastating floods that destroyed several area schools and diminished many athletic departments’ sports medicine supplies. Lough and his athletic training student aides sponsored fundraisers and organized supplies for athletic training programs in those affected areas.

“Lough has not just taught his [athletic training student aides] how to be [athletic] trainers, but he has also showed them how to go above and beyond when there is an individual in trouble,” wrote Tonia Carpenter, a Ripley teacher and parent of a student-athlete. “He has given his students so much more than just athletic training skills.”


Ciara Taylor, MS, LAT, ATC, Athletic Trainer at Oak Mountain (Ala.) High School, relishes the opportunity to be active in the profession. Through her involvement with the NATA, she has been the Alabama representative for the Young Professionals Committee. On the state level, she serves as Secretary for the Alabama Board of Athletic Trainers. In this role, she lobbied for H.R. 921, the Sports Medicine Licensure Clarity Act, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in September 2016.

Despite her extensive advocacy work, Taylor never forgets her student-athletes at OMHS. Currently in her seventh year at the school, Taylor has helped engrain athletic training into its culture. Part of this included the creation of an athletic training club in which she takes students to different athletic training programs around the state, showing them the unique aspects of each one.

Taylor’s passion isn’t aimed solely at students in her club, however. Every March during National Athletic Training Month, she leads the group in decorating OMHS with sports medicine items. Along with this, Taylor teaches P.R.E.P.A.R.E. classes for the National Center of Sports Safety, where she instructs coaches on basic first aid and safety.

Much of Taylor’s leftover time is dedicated to her community. For example, in September 2014, Taylor helped secure a grant that allowed 100 students to attend a sports medicine camp in partnership with Birmingham (Ala.) Parks and Recreation.

“As an athletic trainer, she demonstrates strong leadership skills,” wrote colleague Emma Morozowsky, MS, LAT, ATC, Athletic Trainer at the Drayer Physical Therapy Institute in Birmingham. “She is very proficient in communication, organization, and professionalism … It is clear from her history that she has a heart to serve.”


For the past 19 years, Heidi Wilker, ATC, PT, has served as Athletic Trainer for Belding (Mich.) Area Schools. Over this time, she has earned the respect of the coaches and student-athletes she works with.

In her role as athletic trainer, Wilker has developed a program that provides student-athletes with the opportunity to receive preparticipation physical exams at a reduced rate. She has done this by partnering with doctors and other qualified professionals from the local community who volunteer their time.

Along with being a certified athletic trainer, Wilker is also a licensed physical therapist. This has allowed her to provide physical therapy for student-athletes who are unable to go elsewhere for treatment.

“[Heidi] is an individual who takes her job very seriously, going above and beyond her job description,” wrote her nominators. “She is available 24/7 for all student-athletes, coaches, and parents.”

Beyond her job working with Belding athletes, Wilker serves as the district’s Health Director. In this role, she is responsible for creating students’ individual health plans, ensuring all AEDs in the buildings are appropriately placed and working, providing CPR/AED training for all staff in the district, and providing CPR/AED training for students enrolled in health classes.

In the Belding community, Wilker continues to be a leader of positive initiatives. She is perhaps most well known for creating the nonprofit “B Foundation,” which serves members of the Belding community who have been diagnosed with cancer.


The following athletic trainers received honorable mention for the Most Valuable Athletic Trainer Award.

Tony Agostini, LAT, CSCS, CKTP, ACI, Shorewood (Wis.) High School

Kristina Keddie, ATC, Mt. Hope High School, Bristol, Conn.

Tim Kelly, MEd, ATC/L, Charlotte Latin School, Charlotte, N.C.

Kayla Rang, MS, LAT, ATC, Gettysburg (Pa.) Area High School

Angela Stahl, MS, ATC, Bellbrook (Ohio) High School

Erika Eaton is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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