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Pitt athletic trainer wraps up national award

Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 5:21 p.m.

Pitt athletic trainer Rob Blanc can tell you, quickly and accurately, when a ligament is torn or a bone is broken.

But Blanc wasn't named the 2013 NCAA Division I Head Athletic Trainer of the Year because of what he learned in school.

He was awarded his profession's ultimate annual honor by the National Athletic Trainers' Association for an acquired skill.

“He puts people at ease,” said Kevin Conley, the assistant dean for undergraduate studies in Pitt's school of health and rehabilitation sciences. Conley worked with Blanc, 53, on the Pitt football team for seven years and nominated him for the award.

Athletic training has blossomed into complicated business over the past several years, according to Clarion University head athletic trainer and NATA president Jim Thornton.

“It used to be that explaining an injury to an athlete was a short-term conversation,” Thornton said. “The thing about the athlete of today is they have access to a ton of information. If you try to skip over (an injury), you are in trouble. They have antennas that tell them when you are trying to mess with them.”

Asked what has changed the most about his job over his 25 years in football, Blanc mentioned the increased concussion and head injury awareness among coaches, trainers and players. Also, drug-testing places added demands on athletic trainers and athletes. Pitt, for instance, tests all athletes once a month, according to Blanc.

But he also said he spends more time with athletes off the field. After all, athletes at the highest level are year-round students who don't spend summers at home trying to find a job; they are in the school's weight and training rooms and on the fields getting ready for the season.

As a result, the athletic trainer must be a healer of mental and emotional ills as much as the physical kind.

“I'm not sure they are as independent as when I first started,” said Blanc, who is also an adjunct clinical instructor at Pitt. “Nowadays, they seem to be much more dependent on other people to help them.”

Thornton said trainers are also counselors.

“I've had kids sitting in the chair in front of my desk to talk to me about letting the coach know that their girlfriend dumped them and their head is in the toilet and they are depressed,” he said. “And he doesn't want to tell the coach because he might not start him on Saturday.

“An athletic trainer sees not only ligament strains, but issues that are significant. Everything from abuse to (sexually transmitted diseases).”

Blanc said the key is getting athletes to trust him.

“Some aren't trusting by nature, and they are not sure if we are telling them the truth, or if you are wanting to hurry up and get them back on the field,” he said.

Conley said Blanc's demeanor helps in that regard.

Proof surfaced in 1996, the day before the start of Pitt's spring drills, when freshman wide receiver Demale Stanley reached for a pass and stumbled helmet-first into a padded wall at Cost Center.

“We were standing 15 feet from where it happened,” Conley said.

Immediately, Blanc mobilized coaches and athletic trainers while telephoning the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital so a surgeon was waiting when Stanley arrived.

Blanc, who has co-authored a textbook on emergency care and spent 17 years as a paramedic in Bethel Park, remained calm while managing the scene of a catastrophic injury.

Stanley, who suffered a cervical spine fracture and became a quadriplegic, was on a spinal board before the ambulance arrived, Conley said.

“Rob's ability to focus and manage the situation is one of the most valuable skills he has,” Conley said. “In that way, he can give our students that perspective and, hopefully, they take that with him when they leave here.”

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