Illinois football athletic trainer Nick Richey must oversee the health and well-being of 100 athletes. That includes preparing them for practices and games. Injuries must be padded, and ankles must be taped. Not everyone needs this preparation, but it is still a monumental task for Richey and his three assistants.
"We don't tape ankles for everybody. I think it would be fair to say that, at any given time during football season, we're probably taping half or 60% of the team. And we're treating for injuries, whether it's bumps and bruises or more long-term injury, I think probably 15-18% at any one point."
All ankles are taped at some schools. Healthy players at Illinois can choose whether to have their ankles taped.
"There's a couple different schools of thought. Student-athlete compliance is #1, so we try to consider what they're used to coming in from high school.
"Some kids come from high schools where they don't have anything. They didn't have tape, they didn't have ankle braces, they didn't have athletic trainers. They didn't have shoes that could get replaced more than once every year or every other year."
Those with previous sprains may benefit from the extra protection. For those with extra needs, ankle braces are also available. Again, choice is involved.
"Both the braces and the ankle tape provide a fair enough level of protection that we're okay with providing one or the other."
Even if only 60 players need their ankles taped, that's 120 ankles divided by four people. Can student trainers help with the work load?
"I think it would depend not only on our comfort level with them but the student-athletes' comfort level with them. There's a fair amount of risk and liability in allowing even a student athletic trainer in an accredited program to perform some of those tasks; we allow the students to help as much as they are able to."
Many colleges now have excellent artificial surfaces that help reduce ankle sprains. Richey has seen improvement in that area in his five years at Illinois.
"You look at the Rose Bowl season and the season following that, the number of regular run-of-the-mill ankle sprains compared with this past season, those numbers have gone down."
Of course, some players have chronic recurring problems with ankles. Illini running back Jason Ford is a prime example.
"Jason in particular is an interesting subject. No matter what Jason does, he runs so hard that people have to dive at his knees and ankles in order to get him down. I think there were three games in a row this past fall where there was a safety that tried to arm tackle him up high, and they tore a pec (pectoral muscle). They were out for the rest of the season.
"We've done different braces with Jason, we've done taping with Jason, we've gotten different shoes for Jason. All of those things work pretty well at preventing the standard run-of-the-mill ankle sprain.
"But as long as they've got linebackers, defensive linemen and defensive backs diving at their knees and ankles, him especially, it's going be hard for him to avoid those 100% of the time. We're doing everything you can possibly do with strength and conditioning to strengthen all those areas. And I think he does a pretty decent job."
Illini safety Steve Hull has also suffered repeated ankle sprains that have kept him from getting practice and playing time. Besides his football injuries, a basketball pickup game accident contributed to reduced practice time this spring.
"Steve had some other issues going on that contributed to his situation as far as making it a more lengthy return to action. But Steve is on an ankle maintenance program, and we've changed his shoes as well."
Low ankle sprains heal fairly rapidly. That is not necessarily true for high ankle sprains. Richey discusses those problems in part four.