December 18, 2019
(Courtesy: Florida Times Union)
Project 17 began in 2015 as a public-private partnership to install full-time, certified athletic trainers at all Duval public high schools by 2020. Led by the nonprofit Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program, the initiative was funded by the Jaguars Foundation and the NFL, as well as the city of Jacksonville, Jacksonville University, Brooks Rehabilitation, Memorial Hospital, Florida Blue and Duval County Public Schools.
All 17 Duval County public high schools now have full-time, certified athletic trainers on site, which is a first for the state and caps a five-year community effort to prevent sports-related injuries.
Atlantic Coast and Fletcher high schools joined the Project 17 initiative this year, fulfilling the 2015 goal of having the professional trainers at all Duval public high schools by 2020. Previously, student athletes only had access to part-time trainers.
The goal is simple — “keeping kids safe” as they participate in all sports at all local high schools, said Robert Sefcik, executive director of the Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program, the volunteer-based nonprofit that is coordinating Project 17. Feedback from high schools already in the program has been positive, he said.
“Everybody is surprised that we didn’t have this before. How did it take so long to get to this point?” Sefcik said. “They are really appreciative of what the athletic trainers are bringing to their [sports] programs.”
News that the final two schools had trainers was announced at an October news conference.
“We’re proud of the impact we’re able to make in the community, which is only possible with the assistance of our sustainability partners,” said Michael Spigel, board chairman of the sports medicine program and president/COO of Brooks Rehabilitation.
Project 17 was funded by the Jaguars Foundation and the NFL, as well as the city of Jacksonville, Jacksonville University, Brooks Rehabilitation, Memorial Hospital, Florida Blue and Duval County Public Schools. The initial cost of hiring the trainers was about $700,000, Sefcik said.
The school district is gradually absorbing their salaries, with 12 of the 17 now on the payroll, said Tia Mackey Leathers, the district’s executive director for family and community engagement.
The impact will be incalculable on the district’s 16,000 student athletes, who in the past year sustained about 2,200 reported injuries, she said.
Also, such immediate care may prevent long-term medical issues that could hamper students’ aspirations for college or professional sports. The presence of athletic trainers, Leathers said, “helps protect their futures.”
Jacksonville Jaguar Dede Westbrook, who attended the news conference and met with the district’s trainers, credited his ability to play college and professional football to his Texas high school athletic trainers. During his senior year, he was on the field when another player’s knee slammed into his stomach.
“It felt like I got the wind knocked out of me. I’m there, I’m on my knees trying to get my wind back,” he said. “So my trainer comes up and is like, ‘Is everything OK?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got the wind knocked out of me.’ He said, ‘Well, put your hands on your head and try to catch your breath.’ As I’m doing so, I’m coughing up blood.”
Westbrook was also drinking red Gatorade at the time, but the trainer knew that’s not what he was coughing up.
“So my athletic trainer picked me up and ran me to the ambulance that was at the stadium, threw me in the ambulance and took me to Temple Hospital,” he said. “They did multiple tests … I had ruptured my small intestine.
“If it wasn’t for the trainers … there’s no telling how long I would have sat out on the field and not knew what was going on,” he said. “They are here to help us, but we don’t know that until something happens.”
The first five certified trainers were placed in Andrew Jackson, Ribault, Raines, Englewood and Baldwin high schools, which had the greatest need, officials said at the time. In 2016, Parker and Westside joined, followed in 2017 by First Coast, Lee, Stanton, White and Wolfson and in 2018 by Mandarin, Paxon and Sandalwood.
The Project 17 trainers specialize in preventing and properly treating sports-related injuries, from concussions to heatstroke, Sefcik said. Since the program began, high school athletic trainers have reported 238 concussions in Duval student athletes. About 10 percent of them actually occurred elsewhere — in club sports or car accidents, for instance — but were detected by trainers when students showed symptoms in subsequent school sports activities, he said.
Part of the trainers’ job is to share their knowledge with coaches and students, teaching them to be aware of signs and symptoms of concussions and other sports-related injuries.
“The best prevention is education,” Sefcik said, “to minimize risk.”
If a particular sports drill leads to heat exhaustion, the athletic trainers work with coaches to come up with a safer alternative.
Sefcik is personally and professionally invested in the program. He has three daughters who are student athletes, he said, and he reports to Wolfson Children’s Hospital President Michael Aubin, a member of the sports medicine program’s board.
For even one student to die from a sports injury, Aubin said in an interview, “is too many.”
“This is the perfect public-private partnership,” he said.