Alabama’s medical team begins building its relationships with players long before their first injury. Their first introduction comes before the players even reach college.
Head athletic trainer Jeff Allen has become a piece of Alabama’s recruiting pitch as well. He gives a presentation to players during their official visits to campus that highlights what the athletic trainers and the rest of the medical staff can do.
“I think what happens a lot of places, and I know it happens, because when I say it, parents and recruits shake their heads,” Allen said. “I’m like ‘Look, most places in the recruiting process, they’re certainly going to walk you through the medical facilities. They’re going to show you the pretty tables, the nice pool, we have this, we have that. And you’re going to walk out the back door. You may never meet the people that are actually taking care of you. You may never hear about the doctors. You may not get the chance to meet them.’
“I think that is the norm, versus here, where I meet with every official visit that we have. I’ll meet with them, I’ll meet with their families. We’ll talk to them and give them a presentation about our medical care. It’s an in-depth presentation, if you will, on every kid that comes through here on an official visit. That’s a priority to Coach Saban, that they meet with our area.”
Allen is one of just three members of the Alabama staff who have been with the program since coach Nick Saban’s first season. Running backs coach Burton Burns and strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran are the other two.
Saban brought Allen on board from his previous position at Central Florida. Former Alabama assistant Lance Thompson worked with Allen in Orlando and recommended him when the team needed an athletic trainer. More than a decade later, Saban has seen the value of the medical staff time and time again.
“This is something that players, when they choose to go to a school, should really take into consideration,” Saban said. “Because our doctors operate on almost every NFL player, major league baseball players, all kinds of people come to them from all over the country because they’re so expert. We know that our players are always getting the absolute best medical care. That extends their career. There have been stories of guys that we recruit that go to other schools that break their ankle and they’re never the same. The same injuries that our guys get, Kenyan Drake, he’s playing like crazy and never has a problem with the same injury that some other guy had someplace else and never got fixed right.”
Drake recovered from a broken leg in his junior year and a broken arm in his senior year to play a key role in Alabama’s 2015 national championship. He went on to be drafted by the Dolphins in the third round.
Medical care wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he was recruited, but it made a difference in the end.
“When you’re coming in, you’re pretty naïve to the fact of the training staff and everything they can help you with,” Drake said. “You feel invincible when you’re young. When you get to college, unless you’ve been through some injuries in high school, you weren’t trying to be around the trainer or being around the training room. You wanted to be on the field as much as possible. But as you progress in your career, injuries or nicks and bruises are kind of inevitable. You kind of develop a relationship with the training staff. They helped me through a lot, especially through my two surgeries that I had, numerous little injuries. They become the most important people to you because they help you get where you want to be: on the field.”
Alabama also has the advantage of being able to work with Andrews Sports Medicine, one of the country’s best practices of its type, just a few miles away. All of that combined goes into Allen’s pitch to recruits and their parents.
But all that expertise still only matters if players trust the treatment they’re receiving. That’s not as easy to quantify as recovery times and quality of care, but that makes the difference.
“If the players don’t trust the medical staff, you have no chance,” Saban said. “The hardest thing in the world to do is coach a player when he’s hurt. Because you don’t know how a player feels. You don’t know how much his ankle hurts or his hamstring hurts or whatever the injury might be. You have to rely on medical staff to allow you to know how much can this guy do without causing a problem or furthering his injury or whatever, and what is the rehab protocol that’s going to enable him to be able to get back to full strength the quickest. For the players to trust what they’re told is very important. I think that’s been a real key to our success here, because our players do believe and trust in our medical staff.”