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John Norwig, Head Trainer, Steelers

October 12, 2011
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John Norwig, Head Trainer, Steelers (March 24,  2011):

Can you tell readers how you got started with the Steelers:

I was the Head Athletic Trainer at Vanderbilt and had contacts with the Steelers through the talent scouts that isited the team each season. There was an opening and I was fortunate enough to have Tom Donohoe call me to fill the position. I have been here over 20 years since.

Any takeways from your time at Vanderbilt?

The college game is so similar to the NFL – the injuries are similar as well. The difference is even though Vanderbilt s an SEC team the NFL athletes are still so much bigger, stronger and faster – the speed of the game is much faster.

In the end we’re all behind the scenes people that try to keep players on the field. Getting injured players back on the field is always a great feeling of accomplishment.

We’re here to prevent, recognize, treat and rehab injuries. That’s our job. We do that through orthopedics, nutrition and work with everyone from the equipment managers and medical staff to players and coaches.

How do you work with coaches and scouts?

The key is providing them with accurate information. They nickname me Dr. Doom. We rarely can provide people with good news but being brutally honest is the key part of our job.

We have developed a solid rapport with the coaching staff and that’s also very important.

We do work with scouts and present them with concerns on combine players and fail athletes with medical issues. Sometimes we’ll have longer discussions on whether a player scouts love can last in the NFL or not.

How do you work with the players - how hard is it to provide them with bad news?

In college, we dealt with the players, coaches and parents. We tell the coaches and players and offer to callthe parents.

In the NFL, it’s much more political. We deal with players, coaches and agents. Agents may want their players to play for incentives or want you to operate a certain way and require you to get second opinions. When that happens we’ll have to fly them to see other doctors.

The political issues usually take care of themselves by us being brutally honest and by working well with those other doctors.

Advice to others entering profession?

You need 4 years in college and 70% of trainers have an advanced degree. The key is to get started at the high school and college level. Often it’s who you know and good networking.

Differences in training different positions and players?

You have to mimic the activities of the players. You do have to alter their training depending on the position. Lineman don’t run the distances a defensive back would for example so you train them differently.

Some players overachieve and some underachieve – but most in the NFL -and especially on the Steelers – are hard workers.

As for if they work too hard, again, being brutally honest – making sure they understand the ramifications of what they are doing and how it can hurt them or add to rehab time usually solves that.

How do you work with combine staff?

The medical staff attends the combine. We take a team of orthopedics, internal medicine doctors and athletic trainers. Each team does its own physical on players.

We look at medical history, physical exams and create a medical grade we give to the scouts.  Some players don’t tell us everything but the scouts and trainers know for each player how many games they’ve missed and know what questions to ask and research.

What are thoughts on pre-combine training regimens - do you feel they can give false reads on player Abilities?

Each athlete has a God-given set of abilities. The bottom line is that what they do on tape will show through and the Steelers scouts rely heavily on that. A player can enhance their ability in their short-term to help their combine status but the scouts will usually be able to tell.

It would be interesting to test the combine stars five years later to see the relationship between their combine ability and their NFL ability.

How do you acclimate rookies to the NFL game?

The length of the season is the biggest issue for rookies not to burn out by December 1.

In college, players have academic responsibility only – some embrace it and some do not. But the mental toll on NFL athletes is much greater.

In the pros, players will be in the classroom for a good few hours before practice even begins and they have to embrace that to succeed. That’s something most fans aren’t aware of or appreciate. They have huge classroom responsibilities – its a big part of their job.

How is the offseason training regimen and how does a veteran team handle the lockout?

In a normal year we request injured and rehabbing players to rehab here. By March we have 20-30 players here getting their conditioning done for the season.

With the lockout, the veteran players should know the proper routines and should be accountable and responsible for themselves. With a shorter year due to the Super Bowl the players have less time to recuperate and need more rest.

Normally, in middle March the younger players come in first. 2-3 weeks later another group of players come in – the ones who played a moderate amount. 4 weeks after the first group, the players who played most downs come in giving them ample time to recuperate.

Any last thoughts for readers:

From training camp in July throughout the rehab times post-season, we’re with the athletes 6 days a week – the only day off are Tuesdays. So we’re with these players more than with our families – they become our families – we laugh and cry together.

Its a unique job – we’re with our co-workers more than in any job I know. In a good season it’s easy – and we’re fortunate enough to have many of those. But in a bad season, things begin to bother one another just like any family.

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