Even if you are an avid Husky fan, there’s a good chance you don’t know much about Rob Scheidegger, who might be Washington athletics’ most valuable person of the year.

But don’t feel bad. About a year ago, UW women’s crew coach Yaz Farooq didn’t know much about him, either.

She certainly does now. Just like everyone else working in UW athletics.

Scheidegger is the associate athletic director for health and wellness at UW, and the Husky softball team trainer. But perhaps his most important position this past year has been as chair of the athletic department’s COVID-19 operations team.

Without Rob Scheidegger and the rest of the UW medical training staff, Husky athletes would not have been able to return to the university in the fall, and it would have been impossible to have the unprecedented number of sports currently taking place all at once this spring

No wonder athletic director Jen Cohen called Scheidegger and the medical and training staff the unsung heroes of the past year. Farooq would agree.

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“For all of the terribleness of COVID, if there was a ray of sunshine through this whole thing from the very beginning, it was the appearance of Rob Scheidegger in our weekly head coaching meetings,” Farooq said. “Everything was always, ‘OK, how can we do this?’ It was never, ‘Now we can’t do X, Y and Z because of COVID.’

“He was from Day 1, leading all of us in how do we solve this puzzle. How do we figure this out and how do we get our student-athletes back up and running? He added a lightness to every meeting.”

The Husky Softball diamond is made ready to play for a game on Friday, March 12 — one year after COVID-19 shut down athletics everywhere. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

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Bringing the athletes back

In the fall of 2020, UW made the decision to try to bring all its athletes back after more than a six-month hiatus due to COVID-19. But plenty of question marks remained about how to do so safely and successfully.

“As a department, we made a commitment that we were going to give our student-athletes an opportunity to all come back and train because we knew how much they needed that community, that they needed to fulfill their goals — and we did that without knowing if there would ever be any competition,” Cohen said.

Scheidegger, appointed by Cohen as chair of the newly created COVID operations team, was charged with making the return of student-athletes in the fall a reality.

“It was obviously really important and really challenging,” Scheidegger said. “The NCAA is creating guidelines and policies for operations, the Pac-12 has a health and well-being board providing guidelines and requirements for participation, and then to complicate things even further, we are first and foremost subject to what is happening here locally.

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“Melding all those requirements and making sure we satisfy everything that everyone wants us to do to have our operations up and running, it requires a lot of coordination.”

That the COVID guidelines kept changing made it tougher. Trainers were forced to learn new skills, such as administering tests: about 10,000 PCR tests and 8,000 antigen tests to date.

“The idea of not finding a way (for athletes to return) was never on the table,” Cohen said. “We were really going to do it and that’s because of Rob — he’s a strong optimist and he’s a can-do guy and no matter what obstacle comes his way, he sees it as an opportunity for us to get better. I think his mental capacities and his mindset and his great leadership helped push us to know that we could do it, too.”

Scheidegger deflects the praise, saying the return was the product of many, starting with the administration.

“They’ve basically said to us, Jen and her executive team, whatever you need to support our student-athletes during this time, we’re going to get that done for you guys,” Scheidegger said. “That’s the key. Obviously, my staff is incredible. They have worked incredibly hard during extremely challenging circumstances. We’ve been able to move forward and provide our student-athletes with a really meaningful experience, even with everything that needs to be done from a safety standpoint and a COVID prevention standpoint.”

Washington comes out ffor its game with Utah Saturday.  The University of Utah played the Washington Huskies in Pac-12 Football November 28, 2020 at Husky Stadium. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

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A new challenge

Husky athletes, of course, returned in the fall. Football started a couple of months late, but the other fall sports were moved to winter/spring, which means an unprecedented number of sports taking place at the same time.

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Every sports program at UW except football – 19 of the 20 – was scheduled for competition in March, and the football team just began spring practices last week. That also meant an unprecedented demand on the training staff, who not only have their regular duties – including applying tape and bandages to prevent injuries, implementing rehabilitation programs for injured athletes and other tasks – but also COVID-specific duties like testing.

It’s a lot.

“We have been able to add some hourly help, some extra employees,” Scheidegger said. “We obviously needed that, and not just for the extra stuff that we are doing for COVID, like running our lab and specimen collection, and all the extra things on top of the job we used to do. But with all of our sports going on, we needed extra coverage help.”

Washington has 16 full-time athletic trainers who are in charge of 20 sports (22 if you count indoor and outdoor track separately).

“You do the math, and four of them work just with football,” Scheidegger said.

It doesn’t add up. Hence the need for extra help and a competent scheduler.

Scheidegger is in charge of scheduling the trainers, and also supervises three licensed dietitians, and a social worker who is full-time in the athletic department. He coordinates scheduling for the two clinical psychologists, seven general practice sports-medicine doctors and three orthopedic surgeons who work with the athletic department but are not university employees.

The majority of UW athletes get their day-do-day health care in a medical facility inside Alaska Airlines Arena. There are 16 training tables, but because of COVID restrictions, only half can be utilized.

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“Student-athletes used to be able to just drop by to see their athletic trainer,” Scheidegger said. “Now all appointments need to be scheduled. So we’ve had to really up our organization so that we can still provide health care at a really high level, but also in an organized way with a little tighter quarters.”

Scheidegger said patience has been key, “with our sports programs understanding that our athletic trainers get pulled in a lot of different directions,” he said.

“Management of those teams is definitely a handful and we’ve had to work really, really hard with scheduling,” he said.

Scheidegger had been the head football trainer since 2005 along with being director of health and wellness. He decided to leave the football post after the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl. The move to softball meant many fewer athletes to work with and gave him more time to concentrate on his other duties, including leading COVID operations.

“We feel extra lucky because Rob Scheidegger is our athletic trainer this year, so what a blessing for us to have his resources and his information directly available to us as a softball program,” said UW softball coach Heather Tarr. “It’s a challenge, and we’re lucky to have Rob, for sure. He’s one of the best.”

Athletic trainer Rob Scheidegger heads over to Husky Softball Stadium with the team for Friday’s game against Seattle University.  (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

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Doing it for the student-athletes

Scheidegger said the biggest challenge is “creating an experience that is worthwhile so that we don’t take away all the things that are fun and valuable about sports participation, but we also don’t sacrifice the health and safety of our staff and our student-athletes.”

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To make that happen has taken the work of many.

“Every single employee (stepped up), and we have over 300 employees,” Cohen said. “Think about all the custodial staff that’s done everything they can to follow all those COVID guidelines to create venues that are safe and clean, the facility staff that helps support that, the academic staff that’s had to figure out a creative way to virtually support our student-athletes, our mental-health team and our social workers and all our medical and strength and conditioning staff. I can go on and on and on.”

Scheidegger said his motivation is the student-athletes, knowing they get only a few years to compete for UW. He didn’t want this to be a lost year for them, and helped make sure it wasn’t.

Cohen said normally it’s not until after a student-athlete leaves that they understand all things that go into creating their experience at UW, but she thinks that has changed during COVID. The students get it. The coaches certainly do.

“I am just trying to think of what an undertaking it would be in a normal year (to run so many sports at once),” Farooq said. “Somehow, they are doing it along with COVID testing, attestations and sanitizing everything, and the whole med staff … I have started yelling because I am so passionate. They have been burning the midnight oil since March 2020.

“I want to be successful for them to honor their efforts. I don’t even know how to describe how much every student-athlete, and every person on staff appreciates what the sports med and training staff is magically pulling off right now. I don’t know how they are doing it. I really don’t.”