Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Ryan Kebler

Colquitt County High School

After a decade as Athletic Trainer at St. Petersburg (Fla.) Catholic High School, Ryan Kebler, LAT, ATC, was ready to move on. He and his wife had long talked about relocating, possibly to Georgia, and Kebler dreamed of working at a larger school. At the same time, the Keblers were also looking for a small town with a family-oriented atmosphere to raise their two sons, ages nine and 11.

The perfect opportunity presented itself last summer, when a former classmate from Valdosta State University told Kebler about a job opening at Colquitt County High School in Moultrie, Ga. Kebler interviewed for and accepted the position, and is now in charge of providing coverage at one of Georgia’s largest high schools, including a football team with over 100 players–almost four times the size of the team at St. Petersburg Catholic. He also works with famed football coach Rush Propst in what Kebler describes as a “college-type atmosphere.”

Prior to taking the job at St. Petersburg Catholic in 1999, Kebler did high school outreach while working at a clinic, covering Countryside and Pinellas Park High Schools in Florida. In this interview, he talks about leaving family and friends to make the move to Colquitt County, working in a larger athletic department, and building an athletic training program from the ground up.

T&C: Why did you decide to move to Colquitt County?

Kebler: I came up here and interviewed with Coach Propst and it went really well. I also liked the town, so my wife and I decided to make the move. It was a tough decision because in St. Pete I lived 10 miles from my family and five miles from my in-laws. We were going to pick up and move to the unknown.

But I knew Colquitt County would be a great environment for my boys to grow up in. I also wanted to experience the “Friday Night Lights” atmosphere. We didn’t have that in St. Petersburg, where you’re lucky to get a couple hundred fans at your game. But South Georgia is big-time football. The best way I can describe it is that it’s a college football atmosphere.

How did moving to a bigger school change your job description?

I have a bigger budget and I’m caring for more kids. It doesn’t change the way I work–I’m still going to treat injuries and do all the other things athletic trainers do. I’m just doing it on a bigger scale now. Instead of having 30 kids on the football team, there are 110. I had to change my thinking on ordering supplies and rehab. I now have the ability to do more things with nutrition and treating injuries.

Was it a difficult transition to make?

I take pride in knowing my athletes and knowing how they react to different scenarios, so initially, the hardest part was not knowing any of the players or coaches. I was coming in cold and learning on the fly. Now I’m just another member of the staff and in tune with the kids. For example, I know if Player A goes down on the field, he’s going to take a little longer to get up than Player B, so I should give him time before running onto the field to check on him.

Although football is the big game in town, you’re responsible for all the school’s teams. How do you manage your coverage?

I cover all football practices and games, then any other varsity home sporting event that doesn’t conflict. Right now I’m the only athletic trainer on staff, but my hope is to build a program. When I interviewed and took the job, that was part of my pitch. My goal is to develop a true sports medicine and athletic training program at Colquitt County High.

If you want to have a good system, then you need assistants and you need networks of doctors, physicians, and other personnel. I have some students who help me tremendously by getting the athletic training room ready and setting the field up with water, ice, and other things, but as for adding a paid assistant, we’re not there yet.

What are the first steps to making your vision a reality?

Getting a good orthopedic program we can refer injuries to and have a working relationship with was my first goal, and I’ve already established a relationship with an orthopedic physician at the Hughston Clinic, Dr. Kevin Collins. I think it will be a positive direction for the program. Then, in three years, I hope to have one or two assistants who can help cover the other teams so we can truly provide great care for every athlete here.

In your job interview, you spoke primarily with Coach Propst, not an athletic director. Why?

I met with the principal for a brief time, but predominantly with Coach Propst. He was the one pushing for an athletic trainer. From his previous work at Hoover High School in Alabama, he knows the importance of having an athletic trainer on staff. The school left the decision up to him because the majority of my work would be with his team.

For me, meeting with him was exciting. He’s somewhat of a celebrity from his MTV days. But anyone who knows Coach Propst knows he’s all about the kids, winning, and doing things the right way–which I was very excited about.

So you were the school’s first full-time athletic trainer?

Yes. They had a couple people from the community who volunteered and did some first aid, but they didn’t have a true athletic trainer. That was something Coach Propst saw a pressing need for. He had players missing three games when they should have only been missing one or none, and it was due to not having the proper care.

How did you integrate yourself with athletes who might not have worked with an athletic trainer before?

As the first couple weeks went by, they realized I knew what I was talking about and the importance of coming to see me when they had an injury, and everything was fine. Once a couple kids got hurt and I got them back on the field and built relationships, the rest just fell into place.

The biggest change was that previously, there was no one to turn to when athletes got hurt. The answer for a lot of players was to go to the emergency room. I can eliminate a lot of those unnecessary trips, save the families money, and get the players back in the game sooner.

What is it like working in a place that’s very committed to its football team?

With this town being so football crazy, there are times when a player will go down during a game Friday night and someone will see me in a store on Saturday and ask about his status. Anything I say spreads like wildfire, so I have to really know when to hold my cards close to the vest.

But it’s great to be in a community that appreciates someone helping the football team. A couple weeks into the job, people were already welcoming me to the community and saying how happy they were to have me here.

You used to be licensed in massage therapy. Why did you decide to do that?

I had some free time at one of my jobs in Florida, so I went ahead and got my license. I did it to help me as an athletic trainer. I let my licensure lapse because I wasn’t using it as a source of income, so I couldn’t justify the expense of continuing education and licensure.

But as far as using what I know in athletic training, it’s a great tool. I’d much rather use my hands on an athlete than a stim or ultrasound unit because I can feel what’s going on. I use the techniques I learned every day.

What has changed since you entered the field?

I wouldn’t say it’s too different. It’s still about caring for the athlete and making a proper assessment. There are always advancements in treatment techniques or evaluation tools, and that’s where continuing education comes in.

As far as the field itself, I feel it’s growing, especially for women. When I graduated in 1996, there were 12 graduates in our class and only two were female. I still stay in touch with Valdosta State, and this year there were 16 graduates and the numbers have essentially flipped.

What advice would you give to recent graduates looking to break into the profession? The biggest thing I would recommend is to get involved. I worked as a student athletic trainer from ninth grade on. I tried to meet as many people as I could and wasn’t afraid to volunteer or help out. The more experience you get, and the more scenarios you see, the better prepared you will be for when a scenario comes up and you’re the only one there.

The other thing is to keep your career options open. A lot of the young athletic trainers I’ve talked to say they want to work for a Division I college or pro team. I was the same way when I was younger. My goal was to work in the NBA.

But there’s nothing wrong with working at the high school or clinical level. Everyone gets big eyes and wants to be famous and work with the big programs. If that’s your goal, shoot for your goal, but in getting to your goal, you might find something else that you really enjoy.

Do you still have a goal of working in the NBA?

I really like the high school setting. I have been in the running for some bigger jobs, but at this time, with my family and where I’m at, I’m very happy. If I were offered an NBA job tomorrow, even though it’s been my goal, I don’t know if I would take it. I know what I have here and I enjoy what I do.

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