Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Fred Hina

University of Louisville

As Head Athletic Trainer for the New York Mets, Fred Hina, MA, ATC, CSCS, had pretty much reached the top of the professional ladder. So when the University of Louisville men’s basketball team offered him a similar position in 2001, he might have seen it as a step down. Instead, Hina realized it was the perfect opportunity to balance work and family by moving back to his home state.

Hina spent seven years with the Mets after working his way through the organization’s minor league system. He took a job with the Mets’ rookie league team in Kingsport, Tenn., after graduating from Western Kentucky University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in health care administration. In 1994, Hina was named the International League Athletic Trainer of the Year and was a finalist for the Minor League Athletic Trainer of the Year award, before moving to the majors the following season.

Joining Louisville in 2001, when Rick Pitino became Head Men’s Basketball Coach, today Hina works solely for the men’s basketball team, and enjoyed a trip to the 2005 NCAA Division I Final Four. Last year, he and his team physicians made a life saving discovery when they diagnosed freshman center Clarence Holloway with aortic root dissection, and then Marfan Syndrome. Without emergency surgery, Holloway could have died from an aneurysm caused by his strenuous physical activity on the court.

In this interview, Hina discusses working in professional baseball, moving from the Mets to Louisville, and what he learned about Marfan Syndrome.

T&C: What was it like working in baseball’s minor leagues?

Hina: It was much different when I started than it is today. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were not just athletic trainers, but also equipment and clubhouse managers, laundry personnel, and traveling secretaries.

But the toughest part was coming home at the end of the season and having to find a job. I worked for a lot of temporary agencies and did outreach work for therapy clinics. There are not very many places that will employ you for just four months.

Fortunately, in the early ’90s, Major League Baseball started requiring all its athletic trainers to have master’s degrees, and the pay level began to increase. Some of the organizations offered year-round contracts for their minor-league athletic trainers rather than seven- or eight-month contracts. We started to be treated more like professionals and less like the team’s do-it-all person, even though we still did a lot of work outside our profession.

What was your most memorable experience with the Mets?

Probably the 2000 World Series against the Yankees. The grand stage, the pinnacle of the sport, and watching two New York teams battle was incredible. The toughest part of that series was the built-in travel days we didn’t need because we were just going across town. We were thinking, “Come on, let’s just play.”

What advice would you give athletic trainers working their way up through the minor leagues?

You have to be very people-oriented and very caring. You also need to be unselfish and unconcerned with how much you’re being paid or how many hours you’re working. There is no time clock in this profession. You’re dealing with the health and welfare of athletes, and things happen when you’re not on the job. People have accidents in the middle of the night–they fall down the stairs or cut their finger while cooking dinner–and you have to be prepared for that.

Why did you leave the Mets and go to the University of Louisville?

It was a family decision. New York is a tough place to live, especially when you are from Louisville, as my wife and I are, and you have three young children. The rest of my family actually lived in Louisville during my last three years in New York. With the hours of the job I was never home, anyway.

Rick Pitino has been my friend for some time, and I happened to run into him in New York in the summer of 2001, just after he had taken the job at Louisville. He called back about a week later and said, “Hey, your wife’s already living down here. Do you want to come home?”

It wasn’t like I was looking for a job. I was very happy working for the Mets. But I know Coach Pitino is a very loyal person, and he had a six-year contract. I thought, “I’m basically guaranteeing myself a job for several years as long as I don’t make any big mistakes.” It was an opportunity to be at home almost every night, see my kids, and spend more time with my wife.

How did you make the transition from baseball to basketball?

I got a lot of help from colleagues and friends in the profession, like Dave Werner, who is the Athletic Trainer for men’s basketball at the University of Florida. He started out in baseball and was a great resource for the transition.

A sprained ankle is still a sprained ankle regardless of the sport. The basic structure in terms of knowing your athletes, having a system for annual physicals, arranging physician care, and emergency planning is the same just about anywhere.

How did you find out that one of your players, Clarence Holloway, had Marfan Syndrome?

Clarence went through the standard physical we give all our players. Through the family history form and our exam we identified a potential problem, and we sent him for some additional tests. Doctors discovered aortic root dissection, and we had to get that taken care of right away with a surgical procedure. Once they took away that life-threatening situation, we went through the healing process. They did additional testing and identified Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder, which disqualified him from playing competitively in the future.

He is a great kid, and he has adjusted to life after basketball very well both mentally and physically. The NCAA allows for a permanent medical exemption, so he is still on scholarship. He is going to get an education, and we’re excited for him about that.

What was the conversation with him like after the diagnosis?

It was tough. The cardiologist called me on a Friday and said, “I’ve got the results back, and we need to see Clarence.” But due to scheduling conflicts we couldn’t get him in until Tuesday. So sitting on it over the weekend was hard. At first he was stunned, and then he broke down. He went through all the emotions, and we were there for him.

How do you help an athlete cope with a career-ending condition like that?

It’s difficult for any athlete to understand that they can’t go out and perform any longer. We tried to be very supportive and find additional help for him. I contacted some people from the National Marfan Foundation, and they’ve been a huge help. He has had people to talk with who are very knowledgeable about Marfan Syndrome and very understanding of his situation. They have given him lots of resources and perspective on what he can and can’t do and how to go ahead and live a meaningful life.

What are the symptoms of Marfan Syndrome, and how do you identify it in athletes?

Marfan Syndrome is a disease of the connective tissue throughout the body, and it is most pronounced in the blood vessels. It typically results in some form of aneurysm where one of the blood vessels to the heart or the brain has lost its ability to keep its wall in shape. As for visible indicators, you typically think of the thin, tall kids with the sunken chest, sunken eyes, and the flexibility where they can take their thumbs and pull them back to their wrists.

It’s a genetic disorder that is passed from generation to generation. One thing that helped our physicians was learning that Clarence’s father passed away at an early age from a sudden cardiac event. Due to his exam and his history, the physician went to the next step of testing. Without a good history and exam, we would’ve had no reason to go to those next steps. We’ve given Clarence resources for his brothers and sisters to get tested, as well as any children that he might have in the future. He and his family have to understand that it’s a genetic disease that can be passed along. What did you learn from the situation?

I learned how precious the present is, how important it is to always take care of yourself, and how important annual physicals are for your athletes. Had our doctors not been very thorough, he would have died suddenly at some point. Somewhere, somehow, his aorta would have ruptured and there would have been no saving him.

How do you interact with Coach Pitino and the rest of the staff?

We talk as a staff on a daily basis, and that might happen anytime from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. We go over things that are critical to the team’s success regarding performance, health, team chemistry, or anything else. Coach Pitino trusts my abilities and my knowledge. I have a lot of input into travel, meals, and practice times. He relies on all his staff members to give him input, both good and bad. He doesn’t like “yes men.”

What’s the biggest challenge for athletic trainers at your level?

The pressure on coaches to win and be successful is tremendous. College coaches only have a certain number of scholarships. If four or five of those key players are lost to injury, that will affect the team a great deal. It puts immense pressure on the sports medicine staff to have tried and tested methods for taking care of those athletes.

Do you feel any personal responsibility for the team’s success?

I believe that really good athletic trainers take the success of the team very seriously. If you’re only worried about making sure all your guys are healthy and the coach isn’t yelling at you, then you’re not doing your job completely.

Not only do you want them healthy, but you want them in the right state of mind and working together. Nobody knows the athletes better than the athletic trainer. We deal with everything from their personal problems to their health problems to their social problems. We need to figure out how to get an athlete to perform at the highest level. That might mean contacting professionals in the community, whether it’s for eating disorders, family counseling, or anything else.

What is the most obscure or surprising injury you’ve had to deal with?

One day with the Mets, our starting pitcher for the night came limping into the athletic training room at 3:30 p.m. with a huge towel on his thigh filled with blood. He was trying to open a CD with a hunting knife and managed to stab himself in the leg. He ended up with about 40 stitches and a trip to the disabled list. First, I had to deal with the medical emergency, so I got him over to our physician. Then I had to run and tell the manager that we needed a new starting pitcher for that night.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

To be honest, I don’t feel like I’ve ever worked a day in my life. I don’t consider anything that I do hard because I enjoy it so much. I get my greatest satisfaction when I help an athlete and then during a game the player says thanks. I love watching them perform, knowing that if we hadn’t helped in certain ways, maybe they wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing. I also feel the relationships you build with players make this profession so rewarding.

What are your goals for the future?

I’d like to stay here at Louisville as long as Coach Pitino wants to have me. I grew up a Louisville fan, so it’s kind of a dream job in that respect. I’d love to copy my predecessor, who was here with Denny Crum for 30 years.


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