Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Dawn Hearn

Head Athletic Trainer, University of Texas-El Paso

One of the highest compliments a football player can earn is being called a “man among boys.” At the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), Dawn Hearn, MS, ATC, is a woman among boys, putting her in rare company. She’s presently one of only two female head athletic trainers for football teams in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Even though her situation is uncommon, it’s nothing new for Hearn. She took over as UTEP’s head athletic trainer in 1995, becoming just the third female to head up an athletic training program in NCAA Division I.

Hearn began her journey in the fishery and wildlife biology department at Iowa State University before changing her major to athletic training and graduating in 1985. Ohio University was her next stop, where she earned a master’s in physical education with an emphasis in athletic training.

She worked in Ohio high schools and with the United States Volleyball Association before landing in Texas, coming to UTEP in 1988 as an assistant athletic trainer. Two decades later, she was inducted into the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame. In this interview, she discusses being a pioneer for female athletic trainers, her approach to heat illness prevention, and helping athletes deal with career-ending injuries. T&C: Did you have any reservations about taking over as head athletic trainer for a football team?

Hearn: I had been here as a full-time assistant for six and a half years before I took over, and I had worked with football that entire time, so I didn’t have any concerns. I knew I could do the job. I had been helping out a lot and had covered several spring football practices by myself. I actually had more apprehension about working with men’s basketball than with football.

What were your concerns about basketball?

[Former] Coach Don Haskins was such a legend here, and it was an honor and a privilege to work with someone like that. I hadn’t really worked men’s basketball before, and even though it’s not a lot different from working with the women’s team, there are heightened expectations. That made me nervous at first, even though I knew Coach Haskins in advance. The first couple of games I was really on edge, but after that everything was good.

Do you feel like a trailblazer for other female athletic trainers?

I guess to a certain extent. I was in the right place at the right time to get the assistant position and then the head position. I never dreamed of being the head athletic trainer here, because this was home to my old boss.

A lot of people have asked me about it, and I feel like I worked hard, did a good job for the athletes, and earned the respect of the coaches and administration, and that’s why I was fortunate enough to be promoted. Male or female, if you work hard, good things will happen.

What advice do you have for other female athletic trainers who want to get involved in men’s sports?

I always go back to work ethic. I don’t see myself as the best athletic trainer in the United States, but I’m pretty competitive and I work hard.

Communicating with coaches and administrators and keeping everyone informed of what’s going on is a critical part of the job. I always tell them I am here for the athletes and the people who work for me. I just try to do the best job I can and always keep the athletes’ best interest at heart.

In 2008, UTEP defensive lineman Brandis Drew suffered a herniated disk in his neck. What do you remember about the incident?

He had a career-ending injury but didn’t even go to the ground when it happened. It was a non-tackling contact drill in which the defensive tackles were doing wrap-up moves, and he was a lot bigger than his opponent. Brandis put his head down and hit the other player in the chest with the crown of his helmet.

I didn’t see it happen, but my student athletic trainers alerted me right away. From the way he was standing I could tell it wasn’t good. I had been working with him for a few years and gotten to know him, and his posture told me immediately that it was serious.

I got him to the athletic training room and the doctor came to see him, and he ended up undergoing an MRI. He has since had surgery on his neck because the pain never went away and he had dead arm syndrome.

Fortunately, he can walk and function without any issues. Unfortunately, he is not able to play football anymore. It’s sad when that happens, but the good thing is he’s not paralyzed.

What is it like to tell someone their athletic career is over?

You have to look at the bright side and tell them, “You’re still walking–you’re not in a wheelchair.” These athletes have played sports since they were kids and it’s never easy to have that taken away.

He was in the training room quite a bit after the injury because we were still working on his neck. It was pretty easy for him to come in and talk to me. He got involved with coaching right away because that’s what he wanted to do. People say everything happens for a reason, and in this case, he just got into coaching a little sooner than he would have liked.

How did you end up choosing athletic training as a career?

When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted. In the second semester of my sophomore year at Iowa State, I talked to an advisor in the physical education department and told her I wasn’t going anywhere in the major I had chosen. She took me to meet the women’s head athletic trainer. I really liked what I saw and began studying athletic training.

From there I did my master’s work at Ohio University, where I was one of 13 graduate athletic trainers who worked with local high schools. It was eye-opening–I went from Iowa State, where you had everything you could want in the training room, to a little high school in southeast Ohio that had an ice machine, a little four-pack hydrocollator unit, one taping bench, and that was it. It made me a much better athletic trainer because I had to become a lot more hands-on. I had to be quite the innovator and do whatever I could with what I had.

Coming out of grad school I took a position at a clinic, through which I was contracted to a hospital and a high school. I worked as a physical therapy aide, but found that wasn’t the setting for me–I don’t like to be inside that much. Then I heard about the assistant athletic trainer position at UTEP and interviewed for it.

Being in El Paso, what are your biggest concerns regarding heat illness prevention?

A major part of our job is making sure the athletes are hydrated, because so many bad things can happen when they’re not. The first couple days of football two-a-days are the most dangerous. We have to be especially aware of freshmen because we are at a higher elevation than many of them are used to. We weigh them in and out every day during camp, and there is Gatorade and water free-flowing all the time.

We’re fortunate here because we don’t have high humidity. But we do have high temperatures, and I did have to call an ambulance for one of our athletes last year.

What happened in that case?

The players were right in the middle of running a 100-meter sprint and he did a face plant. I figured he was goofing off because he is in very good shape. I thought he was going to do a somersault, bounce back up, and finish the sprint. I stood there watching for five or six seconds and realized he wasn’t moving.

We called the ambulance and they took him to the emergency room. I finished covering the workout, and by the time I got over to the hospital he had taken two bags of fluid, had eaten a sandwich, and looked like a new person. He’d just been completely dehydrated, partly because he hadn’t hydrated properly after the previous day’s workout.

What is your biggest challenge in managing concussions?

Athletes at the collegiate level are successful because they are so competitive. They know that if they tell you they have a headache, they won’t get to play. We use the ImPACT test because it monitors things we can’t gauge subjectively. If a kid tells me he doesn’t have a headache, I can’t tell him, “Yeah, you do.”

Once they pass the test, they can’t just jump right back into practice–they have to go through a progression. And sometimes you have to prove to them that they’re not ready to return yet. We’ll put a kid on a stationary bike and get him to elevate his heart rate. Doing that may give him a headache, indicating he’s not ready to play.

If you could change one thing about Division I football, what would it be?

One of my biggest concerns is that officials don’t always blow the whistle at the end of the play. Our athletes live by the whistle in practice. The coach says, “Go until you hear the whistle.” But the officials don’t always blow the whistle when a play ends because they feel there have been too many inadvertent whistles. We’ve had a few bad injuries and penalties because there wasn’t a whistle blown at the end of the play.

What is the best part of your job?

The most rewarding aspect is taking someone through a complicated rehab program and then watching them contribute to the success of their team. That’s why I enjoy doing what I do. My motivation comes from athletes having confidence in me, and letting me work them as hard as I want to get them back as quickly and safely as possible.

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