Meet Gerry Garcia, Arizona State’s 24/7 health care

Justin Toscano, Staff Writer
ASU Devils
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As Arizona State football head athletic trainer Gerry Garcia sits in a room on the first floor of the university’s Ed and Nadine Carson Student-Athlete Center, he’s asked what most folks wouldn’t know about his job.

Garcia tilts his head and grins as he ponders the question. As expected, it seems he’s not completely accustomed to fielding a reporter’s questions about him. After all, he’s used to asking players about their injuries and attempting to pry the smallest details out of them.

Suddenly, he thinks of something.

“I feel like we’re a jack-of-all-trades,” he says.

He flashes a smile as he offers this, perhaps because he feels the deserved sense of accomplishment for finding an easy way to describe a difficult job with more daily tasks than one can imagine. He’s then asked about all of those duties.

He mulls over this question, too, because there are so many. In just a day’s work — granted a long one — he dips into many careers when trying to be the best at his own.

“One, you’re a bit of a rehab therapist,” said Garcia. “You also got to play doctor sometimes. You’re going to play coach a little bit and try to motivate guys. Kind of a psychologist at times as well. Sometimes, either a mom or a parent of trying to help them grow.”

Garcia seems relatively unassuming. He’s laid-back, but that doesn’t mean he’s not wide-awake. It’s 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 25 — six days before the team’s season opener against New Mexico State — but Garcia isn’t fazed because he’s accustomed to arriving at 5:30 a.m. every day during the season.

Even that’s nothing, though, because he’s been on campus at all hours. He once came into work at 3 a.m. to care for a sick player. His average day almost always lasts at least 12 hours and if it doesn’t, he considers himself lucky.

As an athletic trainer, it’s almost impossible to be prepared for a day’s work. On the field, Garcia treats everything from concussions to broken bones. Away from it, he’s been asked about what to do for something as serious as a deep arm cut that requires stitches, and something as small as a tummy ache.

“To me, I’m the 24/7 health care,” says Garcia, now in his fourth season as the program’s head athletic trainer.

Each day, Garcia meets with his staff 10 minutes after he arrives. He has a full-time assistant and two graduate assistants who work just football. The program also has its own physical therapist, massage therapist and two chiropractors. Player treatment and taping begin at 6 a.m. and at 6:40, Garcia leaves the training room and heads upstairs to give the coaches his daily injury report.

As all coaches would be, ASU coach Todd Graham and his staff are eager to see impactful players injury-free and back on the field. It’s natural for one to wonder if Garcia is ever pressured to rush them back, especially an important starter like wide receiver John Humphrey, who has missed the Sun Devils’ last three games with a knee injury.

Asked about this potential pressure, Garcia says Graham has always supported and believed in him, what he does and how he does it. And he makes one thing clear about that relationship: He works with coaches, not for them.

“It’s kind of my job to work with them and try to understand what their plan is,” he said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t help the coaches to put a player out there who can’t help the team because he’s injured or maybe not ready yet. That’s actually going to hurt us.”

Take last season, for example. The injury bug hit ASU hard and at one point sidelined about half of the starting lineup when the Sun Devils played Oregon on the road.

“You’re up against the ropes,” Garcia said of that rough time.

Those stressful stretches are part of the job, though. There have been years where ASU is luckier on the injury front, too. Garcia said he only worries about what he controls, which is making sure he’s doing everything he can to get players healthy.

That, too, is a tightrope. There are players who need to be pushed, Garcia said, but some need to be held back so they don’t hurt themselves. Knowing who needs what is only possible because Garcia spends so much time around everyone and gets to know each player personally — some more than others.

Junior offensive lineman Sam Jones admits he often needed to be reined in last season. First off, Jones didn’t know how to classify his ankle injury — he just knew it was “messed up.” After Garcia educated him, Jones began treatment and rehab.

Jones is a prototypical, hard-nosed lineman. He’s 6-foot-5, 300 pounds and wears a face mask with the old-school vertical bar in the middle — a rarity in today’s game.

Of course, he’d push his physical limits, right?

“There were parts in my rehab like the pool workouts and land stuff and change of direction and everything,” Jones said. “It was kind of one of those things I felt like I was ready for, but it still hurt, and (Garcia) was like, ‘It’s not one of those things you can just push through. It’s going to set you back further.’”

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Trust and honesty are perhaps the two most important qualities in Garcia’s profession. He often needs to be forthright with competitive athletes, only for their own good. On the other hand, they must trust him and know not to take it personally, but to realize he has their best interests in mind.

“Trust is actually the biggest word I use with anybody — not only the players but my staff,” Garcia said. “Physicians, physical therapists. You got to trust what the other person is doing.”

Perhaps no one appreciates Garcia and his staff more than junior defensive back Demonte King. While playing at Long Beach City College, King said he and the rest of the football players were rarely able to see the junior college’s athletic trainer.

That changed when he transferred to ASU. King dealt with an injury that kept him off the field all throughout preseason practice and even the first two games of the season. Every day, he’d work with the athletic training staff.

King remembers first walking into the training room and telling Garcia what injury he had.

“Uh, that’s not enough information,” he recalls Garcia telling him.

Next thing King knew, Garcia had called his doctor back home in Southern California. His doctor sent his injury notes Garcia’s way, and King remembers seeing the stack of papers in the training room. Garcia and his staff read the notes, but they weren’t finished. They went a step further.

“They called (my doctor) three days back-to-back-to-back,” King said. “They were so specific on everything. There was no drop-off from home to here, they picked everything up.”

While studying at the University of Texas — located about an hour and a half by car from his in-state hometown Helotes — Garcia was a water boy for the football team in 2002, but soon worked his way up. He began college with the goal of being a physical therapist, but eventually changed his major to athletic training because he liked being around the athletes and coaches because it made him feel like he was part of the team.

He then worked as a student athletic trainer under then-head athletic trainer Kenny Boyd, who got that gig in his 20s. The wide-eyed Garcia strived to be like his mentor, and part of that was following a similar career trajectory. After graduating from Texas, Garcia attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, where he worked as a graduate assistant athletic trainer. In 2014, after two seasons as an assistant athletic trainer at ASU, Garcia was promoted to the head job at the age of 29.

Garcia is still only 33 but has already experienced so much, like the opportunity to see a vision become reality. The new training room Garcia operates in is part of the pristine Student-Athlete facility, which ASU opened at the end of this summer. Garcia said the training room’s design and equipment were the result of Graham’s belief in him and that vision.

“Gerry’s a guy that (the job) means a lot to him,” Graham said.

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That showed when Garcia took control of the project and mapped out his ideal training room and its equipment. In preparation, Garcia toured many of his colleagues’ training rooms. He saw the best around.

“If you were to re-do it differently, how would you do it?” Garcia would ask them, trying to ensure it would be perfect.

Graham said he wanted the best. He also wanted to be innovative because “every athlete is different, especially when it comes to injuries.” Garcia said ASU’s training room is now one of the nicer ones he’s ever seen, easily crossing off the “innovative” box.

The training room features a hot and cold tub and an underwater treadmill. Garcia also advocated for a large plunge pool that’s now in the locker room for as many as 30 Sun Devils to use at once. Additionally, ASU bought new recovery equipment.

Garcia said players can receive treatment from him and his staff until about 7-8 p.m., but they eventually must go home. Before this season, when they’d leave the training room, he would go home thinking, What if? What if players could get treatment at any hour? Is there something they could be doing when they’re not on campus?

That’s no longer an issue because players now have the option of taking home recovery equipment. Included in the haul are items as simple as upgraded walking boots, and some more complex, like cutting-edge devices that can be plugged in overnight to provide compression and reduce swelling.

“Literally, they’re getting treatment while they’re sleeping,” Garcia said.

But Garcia has never needed the “newest, latest, greatest,” as Ken McCarty, the head athletic trainer of university athletics, puts it. McCarty said Garcia has always perfectly blended usage of state-of-the-art modalities with some old-school touch, rare for young athletic trainers in a business where technology advances so rapidly.

“I think he does a good job of integrating the new stuff and also realizing that 40 years ago, we got ankle sprains better the same, with just with manual therapy and what we had available,” McCarty said of Garcia, who was exposed to advanced equipment while working an internship with the New York Giants during the 2009 season.

Garcia deserved a new playground and shiny new toys for the amount of work he does each day, though. He regularly rides into ASU’s 9 a.m. practice on a green cart driven by another staffer. His outfit regularly consists of an Adidas ASU shirt tucked into athletic shorts with a black med kit strapped to his waist. He also sports a hat and sunglasses for protection during the three-plus hours he’ll be braving the scorching Arizona heat.

During practice, Garcia is often seen at “Muscle Beach,” the spot where injured Sun Devils spend the morning. He’s constantly talking to the players and asking about their injuries. There are also times when Graham yells for Garcia, prompting him to run all the way across the field.

Garcia already has many memorable moments from his tenure at ASU, but perhaps none better than two from 2014. His first Saturday as the head athletic trainer was the famous “Jael Mary” game where ASU stunned USC with a Hail Mary pass as time expired. Garcia was also proud of how he and his staff handled Taylor Kelly, the starting quarterback whose injury gave way to then-backup Mike Bercovici throwing that game-winning pass. Kelly suffered a right-foot injury in a Sept. 13 game at Colorado, had surgery and was back on Oct. 25.

Injuries may often be the low point of an athlete’s career and leave everyone wondering what could’ve been had they been healthy. As expected for an athletic trainer, Garcia said the most rewarding part of his job is helping players see the field again because he’s seen firsthand the work both sides put in — especially the player.

“Tough players make good athletic trainers,” Garcia says in reference to Kelly’s situation.

The most demanding part of Garcia’s job is the time commitment. August to December is his “go time” as spends more time on campus than he does at home, regularly working 80-90 hours per week.

In return, he’s received a second family. He notices it when players approach him for anything and everything. It’s ever-apparent when coaches bring in their kids for him to evaluate. Sam Jones, the lineman, said the players often spend time laughing with Garcia, though work does get done in the training room.

“The days that I do have off, I kind of wonder what to do with myself because I’m so used to being here,” Garcia said. “I’ll often end up coming in anyway just to tidy things up and get ready for the next day.”

Those days don’t come around often, though. And this particular Friday isn’t one of them. At about 8 a.m. when the interview is finished, Garcia gets up from his chair, politely says his goodbyes and swiftly walks out the door. He’s in for another long but rewarding day.

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