Illinois has brought in a large freshman class, including a handsome group of walkons, this season. Illini athletic trainer Nick Richey has a major responsibility looking after their needs, especially early in the summer.
"We do freshman physical evaluations and take them through the paces as far as physicals, concussion testing, balance testing, eye testing, getting them fitted for mouth pieces.
"The first two weeks they're here is kind of crazy in terms of getting everybody taken care of and making sure they hit the ground running as quickly as possible, with as few interruptions as possible. So by the time Rantoul starts they're integrated, they're working, they're at pace as far as possible with everybody else."
Camp Rantoul poses unique problems for Richey and his staff. While it involves a lot of work, he finds it more tolerable than one might suspect.
"Camp Rantoul isn't bad. I worked two summer camps in New Orleans for the Saints while Coach (Ron Zook) was down there. Thibodaux, Louisiana, during the end of July and month of August is interesting to say the least.
"From the standpoint of weather, rain, humidity, temperature, and then you throw in bugs and alligators, and then a Division-AA school campus, it is an experience unlike any other. Camp Rantoul is easy compared to that."
But it must be wearing having to move all the equipment back and forth.
"It is, but it's not bad. This will be my fifth Camp Rantoul. We've kind of got it down pretty well. They make improvements to it, but other than that the layout never changes. We make adjustments in terms of the amounts of different supplies we take up there depending on the amount of time we're going be there.
"I've stayed in the same room the last three years. The athletic training room hasn't changed, the locker room hasn't changed. So from that standpoint, it's not bad. It's set up pretty well for our guys, whether they like it or not, from an ease standpoint of getting from point A to point B.
"They have plenty of down time too. Coach does a good job of trying to make them as fresh as possible. And we set it up so they can be as successful as they can be."
Richey is more than a trained health professional. He is a care-giver in the true sense of the word. He gives of himself to help others.
"The number one goal that we have is providing good health care to the student-athletes. We tell all our kids when they walk through the door freshman year, if they have a problem, whether it's football, school or personal (family, mom, dad, girl friend, coach) related, I am interested in being here for them. So that we can help them get to somebody who can give them the answers or information they need.
"We take a lot of pride in the fact that we have an open door policy. My cell phone is always on, whether my wife likes it or not. My email is checked 100 different times a day. Each one of these kids has office numbers, email. They can text me, call me, send me a note by pigeon, whatever it is they want to do.
"And we get them taken care of. That's us. That's who we are. That's what we want to do."
Each student-athlete has concerns beyond the football field. Richey must use a holistic approach as each aspect of a player's life affects every other aspect.
"I think the academic, athletic and personal side of each one of our student-athletes are so closely related and tied in, that if they begin to falter in one of those three levels, the other two are going be significantly impacted. We see that all the time, especially with our freshmen.
"They're coming here to play football. They're coming here to be special student-athletes. About 8 weeks into the semester, the academic side of things really starts to weigh on them. And then the football side starts to suffer. Then maybe their personal lives start to suffer.
"Before you know it, you're fighting all three of those aspects. They don't have the maturity or the personal resources to understand how to deal with those."
Empathy is a necessary component of a good athletic trainer. He must truly care about his players. Giving of himself is appreciated, and it aids the healing process. It also helps when conflicts arise. Watching Richey in action, it is obvious he sincerely cares for his players. It is no act.
"I think the more the student-athlete can understand that you have some understanding what they're going through, the more likely they are to trust you. Without the student-athlete's trust, my position goes nowhere. I can have all the trust in the world in the coaches, but if a student-athlete doesn't trust me, I might as well pack up my stuff and hit the road.
"There are times where we have to be hard on kids, and I hate that. I tell guys straight up, I hate being a bad guy. I hate it with a passion. I'm not a bad guy, I'm not malicious. I am a health care provider, I am a set of open ears. I am a friend in some cases. I'm a guy whose main goal in life is to help you.
"I think for the most part, that mentality, that ideal has made it possible when it's not fun, where it's not possible to be nice, when it's necessary to be a harder-edged kind of person, has made those times more tolerable."
Zook hired Adrian Melendez as his head trainer when he arrived from Florida. After one year, Melendez became the Director of Football Operations and was replaced by Byron Cunningham. Richey took over when Cunningham left for the NFL. Some trainers stay in one place a long time, and some move on to different situations. Richey plans to stay awhile.
"My long-term plan is to continue providing great health care for the student-athletes I work with. I love Illinois; Illinois is great. It's a good working environment. I think we're on an upswing from a facilities standpoint with our sports medicine facilities. Our physicians are good to work with.
"The coaching staff here is good to work with, understanding they may not like the information we bring back, but we do have a job to do. They are interested in letting us do our job even though that might not be the most convenient thing to do.
"It works pretty well. For the foreseeable future, I plan to continue."
Richey is fulfilling his dream. Despite the long hours and hard work, he still has enthusiasm for the job. Like any position, the key is to continue learning and evolving to prevent stagnation.
"When I was an undergrad, my goal was to be a head athletic trainer, or a director of sports medicine. I'm in the head athletic trainer's role. I've worked extremely hard to get here and still have a lot to learn and understand about a lot of things I have seen. And there's a lot of things I haven't seen yet.
"As long as I can continue to keep my eyes and ears open and keep my mind open to new ideas and other peoples' opinions, and continue to provide good health care for the kids, I think we'll be all right."