It was finals week. Shane Nelson was getting ready to take the exams for nearly the last time. The December weather was providing an excuse to study. The winter, with its deep drifts and frigid gusts, was starting to come in strong. Nothing better to do than sit down with his athletic training texts.
Still, he couldn’t help but look past the coming exams a little bit, in anticipation of the winter holiday. One week of stress and exhaustion, and he would be able to relax for a month. Then he would be back to campus for a final semester. He thought.
On December 10, just as his first test was approaching, he got a phone call. It was from the Chicago Cubs minor league organization, and they had a position to offer. Nelson, who had interned with the AAA Iowa Cubs during the previous summer, had told staff members he was interested in taking a spring training internship. It was his dream to work in professional baseball.
When a spot opened, the organization called him. There were just two problems. It started in less than a month, and it was in Arizona.
Nelson had to get permission to finish his last semester from Mesa, Az. His new internship would cover some of his remaining credit, and he would take online courses for the rest. After he was assured it would work, Nelson still had to cancel his housing, withdraw from his on-campus courses and say his goodbyes. “I must have walked from one end of campus to the other a hundred times, just going to the registrar’s office,” Nelson recalls of the week after the call.
On Jan. 1, 2011, Nelson left the Iowa winter in his wake and took an internship working with rehabbing players from across the Cubs organization in the desert heat of Arizona. After completing his final semester and passing the athletic training certification exam, he accepted the job as head athletic trainer of the Mesa Cubs, the organization’s rookie league.
“It’s just like the players do,” says Nelson of his starting position. “You start out in rookie league and try to work your way up into a coordinator position or a big league job.”
As the Mesa Cubs head athletic trainer, Nelson is responsible for the medical treatment of 35 players on the rookie roster. When a player suffers an injury, he assesses it and designs a new rehabilitation plan. It’s all designed to get the player back on the field as quickly as possible. “It’s very much based on communication between us, the athlete and the coaching staff,” Nelson says of the process. They all have input into what is best for the individual and the team.
Because communication is key, Nelson says it’s crucial that his players feel comfortable enough with him to be honest about their injuries. Still, he must maintain a professional balance. “You have to be careful not to get too close to a certain guy,” he says. “After all, it is a business, and he could get cut at any minute, or traded. You can’t let a personal relationship affect the decisions you’re going to make.”
And the decisions he makes are crucial, affecting the careers of the professional athletes he works with. In addition to serving the rookie squad, Nelson treats rehabbing players from various minor league affiliates. If a player is afflicted with a serious enough injury, the team will send him to Mesa for treatment.
When working with the rookie players, it is up to Nelson and one co-worker to get them ready to play as quickly and safely as possible. Only a few short months away from his Central education, Nelson can already see how it prepared him well to care for these professional athletes.
“The thing that really sets Central apart in athletic training is that we were given a team, and that was our responsibility,” Nelson recalls. Because he was assigned to on-campus sports teams as a student trainer, he had the chance to gain the experience he needed to be an effective trainer today.
“Experience is everything in this profession,” he insists. “The more stuff you see and the more mistakes you make, honestly, the better you’re going to be the next time it happens.”