For Alex Crum, the disruption of COVID-19 during his spring semester was just the first round of confronting life within a pandemic. Having just finished his first year in the master’s of athletic training graduate program, he was truly excited for the summer and an upcoming internship with the Indianapolis Colts.
He planned to be on his way to his internship as soon as the school year ended in mid-May -- but, plans changed. He soon found himself in a holding pattern as the Colts and the National Football League weighed when to start training camp. Finally, on June 21, Crum headed to Indianapolis where, for the next two months, he helped with treatments, practice set-ups and general assistance--including conducting COVID-19 screenings with players and staff to start each day.
The former high school athlete first took notice of this potential career area while being treated by his Gilbert, Iowa, high school athletic trainer before practices. “She was amazing and did her job so well that my interest in athletic training grew,” he says.
At UNI, Crum eventually declared an undergraduate major in movement and exercise science, which merged his love for sports and athletics with a growing passion for healthcare and exercise performance. “That’s when I grew to love learning about how the body functions and how we can optimize its function and performance in sport,” he says. This major, like an athletic training and rehabilitation studies undergraduate degree, often leads to advanced education in health-related careers. For Crum, his choice was the UNI master’s of athletic training (M.ATR.).
“I chose to stay at UNI for my graduate studies because I already knew the athletic training staff well and I had a great undergraduate experience, so why leave!” he says.
Getting hands-on experience is part of the depth of learning expected at UNI. Each semester of the two-year graduate program requires clinical experience, but it’s not unusual for students to look for additional placements. Crum aspires to be an athletic trainer in the NFL, MLB or NBA. “Even though I played baseball and basketball in high school, I love football. I love to watch it and it’s cool to be part of a team as a healthcare provider,” he says.
Knowing Crum’s long-term goal was to work with a professional team, Mark Hecimovich, associate professor of athletic training, pointed Crum in the direction of the NFL. With Hecimovich’s guidance, Crum put together personalized cover letters for all 32 teams. The Colts were the first to interview Crum over the phone and offered the internship soon after.
Hecimovich says Crum was ready after his first year in the program. “The types of things that are required by the teams would be a really good knowledge and skills of rehab techniques and therapeutic modalities, as well as some manual techniques we teach,” he says. “That first year, we really hit the students hard with those types of courses.”
The experience he’d been waiting for
When finally settled into Indianapolis, Crum found, as an intern, he did a little of everything -- helping with rehabs, treatments, projects, practice set-up, errands, transporting players -- but he was part of the team all day, every day. Before training camp, he worked eight-hour days, beginning with screenings for COVID-19. He’d then return to the training room to help with treatments or other assigned projects for the remainder of the day.
“During camp, days were a lot longer. We came in around 6:30 a.m. to screen and set up the training room. Once players begin to arrive, we helped out with treatments and rehabs. Some of us might also go set up everything for practice,” he says. “After treatments, we’d all head out to practice and help the staff with dispersing fluids and anything else the players need. After practice it’s recovery time, so we provide treatments for players once again. Then walk-through begins-- which is similar to practice, just on a smaller scale. We ended the day with treatments and clean up.”
In addition to delaying the start of his internship, the pandemic led to preseason games being cancelled, so he missed that experience. “COVID-19 also brought a lot of new protocols with it that neither I nor the staff had ever experienced. So, it was a learning experience for everyone,” he says.
“My experience with the Colts has been a once-in-a-lifetime thing. The community they have created is amazing and made me feel at home. They truly cared that the interns had the opportunity to grow in their skills and knowledge. Not every NFL team provides that kind of experience,” he recalls. “The athletic training staff was always joking around with the players and fellow staff members, creating a fun, loving and productive environment that the players felt comfortable in. It was important that they developed a level of trust and respect with the players so that they in turn could provide the best services and treatment.”
Crum says the internship added to his skill set, including developing the manual therapy skills first learned at UNI. “The Colts staff is very manual therapy-driven and that is also the path I'd like to take as an athletic trainer,” he says.
“The biggest thing I got out of this internship, though, was a big boost in my confidence in everything I do,” he adds. “Whether it be the skills I am using, a treatment I am performing, or talking with the players. I've learned to open up and begin to create relationships with the players that help build trust and respect.”
Crum returned to campus on August 31 for his final year as part of the second cohort in the graduate M.ATR. program. The UNI program was the first in Iowa to become accredited at the master’s level, now required for certification as an athletic trainer. For more on Alex Crum’s story, read this InsideUNI feature.