Vikings help 13 schools get athletic trainers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Just before coach Mike Zimmer named Matt Cassel the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback on Monday, the team held a press conference of a different sort: the Vikings announced they've partnered with the NFL Foundation on a $50,000 grant to provide certified athletic trainers for the 13 public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The $50,000 initiative will put athletic trainers from TRIA Orthopaedic Center in all 13 schools, helping to ensure proper care is given to football players at those schools. The grant will also employ the Vikings' car service to provide rides for athletes and a guardian that might not otherwise be able to get to a doctor's appointment. In total, Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said, the program will cover 600 kids who play football in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"I think that’s a really big deal," Sugarman said. "We are not only going to cover varsity football games -- we are going to cover JV games, ninth grade games, we are going to cover preseason practices and practices during the season. (It's) care that these kids have never had. We hope that this is care that they are going to expect to get and it will be very beneficial. Nearly 50 percent of high schools in our country do not have a fulltime certified athletic trainer. This is a very, very big task and a very important thing that we are doing."

We've heard plenty from the NFL about its commitment to player safety and the work being done at the youth level, through the NFL-sponsored USA Football and its Heads-Up program, to reduce head trauma in the game. Programs like the one the Vikings announced on Monday, then, are important steps to making sure there's some action behind all the talk. As Sugarman pointed out, having an athletic trainer on site is key to diagnosing concussions and enforcing proper return-to-play steps. The Vikings were in a good position to make it happen, thanks to Vikings vice chairman Lenny Wilf's place on the NFL Foundation board, but if other teams are able to enact similar plans in their communities, it'd go a long way toward putting some muscle into the league's safety efforts.

"Football in our country, football in our communities, the health and safety of players is a paramount and this is what this is all about," Sugarman said. "As an athletic trainer at heart -- you guys know I pound my chest over this; I’m very proud to be an athletic trainer. I’m more than thrilled to be one of the first teams to stand up here and have acted on this grant initiative and to be able to make this happen for the kids in our community that want to play this great sport known as football."