Doctors determine whether football players can play any given week. If injuries are not healed, they don't play. However, recovery from minor problems can be enhanced with special care on short notice.
Illinois athletic trainer Nick Richey does what he must to make sure Illini football players can perform on Saturdays. Sometimes that means staying up all night before a big game.
"Without mentioning names, we had a starting defensive end come down with the flu before the Western Michigan game 2 years ago. He came to us after the team meal and complained of nausea and vomiting, we ended up sitting with him most of the night to make sure he received IV fluids and medication so that he wouldn't be so dehydrated and zapped the next day. He was able to eat breakfast the next morning and play 60 or so snaps as well."
While such situations can be traumatic in the short-term, they produce lasting memories and special relationships that stand the test of time.
"When the player and I talk, we'll talk about sitting up in the hotel with him. While he's snoring, I'm sitting up watching a replay of the Dave Letterman Show in the middle of the night, taking care of him."
Richey is always on his toes, ready to spring to action at a moment's notice.
"That 24 hours before kickoff is either the best 24 hours of the week, or it's the worst 24 hours of the week. There's no in between."
In other words, when Coach Ron Zook says playing time is a "game-time decision," rest assured it means extra work for the athletic trainer.
"Yes. I'd say that's completely fair."
Richey appreciates the intangible rewards he receives for a job well done.
"I think nights like when we sat with that guy in the hotel, that'll forever burn itself in my mind. Just the relationships that you build with some of these guys. Brit Miller and I stay close, to the point where Brit came back here during the winter and did his ACL rehab with us."
Richey develops positive relationships with most if not all the players. His best relationships often develop secondary to traumatic injuries and illnesses.
"Unfortunately, we spend more time with the guys that get hurt than anybody. Guys like Martez Wilson and Donsay Hardeman and Corey Lewis, we spend so much time with them."
Wilson's neck surgery required extensive rehabilitation. Not everyone has the courage and perseverance to return to the playing field. Success was an added bonus.
"Martez was extremely happy that he got drafted. I've never been prouder of a kid. From the day he got hurt to the day he came back and was full go, I've never seen anybody work harder. I've never seen anybody have more of a belief that they were going to get back and be successful. That they were going to be better than they were before.
"Martez and I spent a lot of time together. I'm extremely happy that he's got the opportunity that he does."
Of course, not all Richey's memories are injury-related. He receives the same rewards as the players when the team has success.
"Obviously, going to the Rose Bowl the first year was special. My mentor worked at his institution probably 25-30 years before he ever got that opportunity. My first year at a Big 10 University, and then to have an experience I'll never forget."
Richey talks about freshman orientation and Camp Rantoul, as well as his philosophy as a trainer in the conclusion of this interview series.