FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — It’s a typical afternoon inside the trainer’s room at Northside High School’s indoor athletic complex.
A Lady Bear volleyball player is getting treatment for her knee. A Grizzly football player needs some ice for his wrist. A Lady Bear tennis player comes in to have her ankles checked out. Other athletes, who need something for whatever ails them, begin streaming in.
Northside’s longtime athletic trainer, Sherry Riggins, is used to the constant traffic of athletes streaming into her office.
“There’s a lot of people coming in here, especially during seventh period, because most of the athletic activities are going on that period, so we have multiple sports (athletes) coming in here and they need some kind of care before their practice gets started,” Riggins said. “But then I also do rehabilitation, and so sometimes after we get everybody ready for practice, then we do some rehabilitation, whether it’s knees, ankles or shoulders, so it’s a busy place.”
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For more than 20 years, Northside athletes have been taken care of by the person affectionately referred to as “Miss Sherry,” Southwest Times Record reported. She is calm but firm in her demeanor, dispensing advice just as much as she dispenses medicine for the athletes.
“I think most of the athletes want to be successful, and at a time and in their careers here in high school when there’s an injury, sometimes that can be very discouraging and devastating to them,” Riggins said. “But my job is not only to help them get well and be successful in their sports, but to be successful human beings in society and to give back.
“Actually, being an athletic trainer for me is like a calling, it’s not just a job because what I want to do is for them to be successful in life more than they do for athletics, because the percentage of any athletes going on into the professional (ranks) is not real large. So to be a successful person and to try to attain the goals they want to, that’s part of what my job is and part of the fulfillment of my job.”
Riggins, a Fort Smith native and Northside graduate, is currently in her 23rd year at her alma mater, and is in her 28th year as an athletic trainer. She’s seen a lot of changes over the years, from advancements in medicine to upgraded facilities.
But her biggest adjustment came once she set foot on Northside’s campus. Female athletic trainers at the time were generally uncommon, and there might have been some hint of skepticism from mainly male coaches. But Riggins said she was more than determined to prove her worth and that she belonged.
“I was probably one of the first female athletic trainers in Arkansas, so it was an adjustment for male coaches,” she said. “Females were not just in that profession in athletics, especially in Arkansas, so they had an adjustment. There probably was some that were very apprehensive, but that really didn’t bother me. All I wanted to do was prove myself as an athletic trainer and take care of the kids, and I felt like when that was accomplished, then all the apprehension would go away and it did.
“It was the general worries of being a female in a male population with male athletes, the apprehension there, but once they discovered that I knew what I was doing as an athletic trainer, that the male and female (dynamic) was not a problem anymore.”
There were other obstacles when Riggins went to Northside after having previously served as a trainer at Ozark. It was a bigger school with more sports, which invariably meant there would be a more demanding schedule.
“The schedule probably was (a big adjustment) because it was very demanding, especially at a 7A high school,” she said. “You have multiple sports, so as far as that was concerned, as far as being comfortable, it was just adapting to the schedule and teaching others what athletic training was and what was needed and the facilities that I needed, so as far as being comfortable in my own skin, I was fine.
“I was an older athletic trainer, too; most of them had come out of college and I had a family and I had already been to college some, so I think being to my advantage was being an older female and that made it easier for the other coaches to accept.”
Riggins always had an interest in the medical profession growing up. But a skiing injury eventually forged the path to lead her to a career as a trainer.
“I was interested in medicine anyway, but I had two small children, so the medical field wasn’t a big possibility for me,” Riggins said. “But I always liked athletics, and our family was always involved in it. I had injured myself snow skiing and injured my knee, and when I came back, a friend of mine told me she had gone to a CPR class, and there was a gentleman there that was what they called an athletic trainer and that he worked with athletes, so she said you ought to go talk to him.”
That trainer was Tom Cantwell, who was Northside’s original trainer.
“When I went to talk to him, he discouraged me from going into the profession because of all the long hours, and because I had a family and I would have to commute to the University of Arkansas and that was before (Interstate 49) was built. … I was very interested in it, and my personality is if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m probably going to show you I can. So I commuted (to Fayetteville) for three years and got my degree.
“I just loved the field of medicine, I love helping others and I like working with athletics, so that’s what got me interested in it.”
Riggins enjoys interacting with the athletes, and encourages them while they are recovering. But one of her ironclad rules is that the athlete must also do his or her part to get better.
“The kids will tell you this, I don’t have sympathy but I have empathy,” Riggins said. “If an athlete is injured, and we work really hard and they get back and they’re successful, that’s what I want for them. … I do have a philosophy, though. I’m here to help you, I’m here to help you get well and to be successful. If you choose to not go by my advice, then I choose not to spend my time and effort into something that you don’t want to do.
“I tell the athletes, if you choose not to do what I recommend, then I’m probably not going to be real nice to you because my goal is to help you get well. … I advise you to do a certain level of doing something, you do it and you get well, we’re great. If you do it and you don’t improve, then that tells me what different other step I need to go to in order to help you get well, so it’s very vital that they do what I ask them to do where I know how I’ll take care of them.”
Northside coaches also showed their appreciation in Riggins’ role taking care of their athletes.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve been in places where you didn’t have an athletic trainer,” Northside football coach Mike Falleur said. “It was a coach, sometimes yourself, and the fact that you’ve got somebody of her experience and caliber that can take care of your kids and be there to make decisions, it’s just a ton of relief to have somebody of that caliber to be there to say, ‘Hey, we need to do this’ or ‘We need to do that.’
“She runs a very organized and tight ship on how she wants you to do things, and she does a great job. If our kids know they’re in good hands, then she’s going to take care of them.”
“The kids really like her and she builds a good relationship with them,” boys’ basketball coach Eric Burnett said. “That way, she’s allowed to push them a little tougher to get them back and they respect Miss Sherry.
“But I just think she does a good job and she’s always available for the kids, especially if you’ve got somebody that’s hurting and you really need them back for that next game or whatever, she goes overboard to help us with that.”
Miss Sherry is also part of the collage of championship photos won by Northside squads, from football to boys and girls basketball, which are displayed at both Mayo-Thompson Stadium and Kaundart-Grizzly Fieldhouse. She is seen on the 1987 state title winning football team when Riggins interned at the school while attending Arkansas, and she’s also in the team photo of the Grizzly basketball team which won state this past March.
Riggins said she owns about six state championship rings. Another accolade she has is that she is the only female inducted into the Arkansas Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame, which she was awarded in 2006.
There are also currently eight student trainers who work under Riggins. They also spend countless hours at it, but Riggins makes sure they maintain a good grade-point average, along with good attendance and socialization skills. Several of her former student trainers have gone into athletic training themselves.
“I’m asked by students about going into athletic training, I want them to be more marketable, make sure they get their teacher’s license and if they want to get some specialties in other areas that if they want to have a family, it takes away from that,” Riggins said. “So they need to be more marketable in that they work in different facilities whether it’s in industrial, whether it’s in physical therapy, a doctor’s office as an extender, so they can be more versatile that if they want to have more time and have a family, they can do that.”
Her and her husband, Joe, have two children, son Brad and daughter Karen Rollans, and also have five grandchildren, and whenever Miss Sherry has spare time, she likes to watch her grandchildren, all of whom are involved in sports.
Even with the long hours she puts into her work, Riggins isn’t ready to slow down anytime soon.
“I don’t know when I’m going to retire. … Everybody asks me that, and I’ve talked to a few physician friends of mine,” she said. “When I feel like I’ve made a wrong decision, if I’m incompetent in the care that I give the kids and I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job, then it’s time to retire and let somebody else take care of the kids where they can take better care than I did. What I want to do is to train students to be athletic trainers to come back and do better than what I did.”
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/