Long before I donned a white coat as a physician assistant (PA), I proudly wore the team-based apparel favored by certified athletic trainers (ATCs). As an ATC in the early 1980’s, I studied and worked in circles where polyester coaching shorts reigned supreme.

Many PAs came to the profession through the ATC pipeline. My PA program at MEDEX in Seattle featured another ATC, and we’d often share the secret ATC handshake before class, indicating the bond that all trainers have.

ATCs function in many settings, and the profession has been around for more than 100 years. My father went to Oregon State University in the 1940s, and I still have the classic athletic training handbook he gave me, authored by Dr S.E Bilik, who wrote the first major textbook about athletic training in 1916.  It is both savvy and hilarious. My favorite part is the section describing how trainers can achieve effective hydrotherapy by hosing down athletes with a powerful garden hose, a practice that had clearly fallen out of favor by the time I studied athletic training at Oregon State.

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Student athletic trainers carry a full load of science, anatomy, physiology, and physics classes during the day, and often spend time in the training room caring for athletes before and after class. When I was in school, large intercollegiate programs like Oregon State had a few staff trainers, and around 20 student trainers. We’d tape limbs, clean things, stock shelves, carry hot packs around, strap electric devices to athletes, clean whirlpools, attend practices of various and sundry sports, and finish our long days with homework.

Most of the time the coaches didn’t know our names, but just knew we were trainers because of our coaching shorts and fanny packs, which were draped with scissors, tape, and analgesic rub. When an athlete would go down, particularly at large football practice session with up to 100 people on the field, a coach would bellow “TRAINER! TRAINER!” when a trainer was needed to attend to an injured athlete.

The student and staff trainers would often try to design hand signals after our attempts to use walkie-talkies failed due to chronic battery shortages. The hand signals were meant to signal “send ice bag” or “I need a different pair of coaching shorts!” We never figured these out, and the last time I tried the hand signals I signaled for ice bags, only to have a golf cart race to my location and drop off 30 pair of orange coaching shorts.   

Due to some sort of cascade of administrative mistakes, I graduated and passed my ATC certification, and began an exciting career in professional baseball as an ATC. I worked for the San Francisco Giants in their minor leagues, learning the strange ways of the corn-people of Clinton, Iowa, as well as the mysterious behaviors of the swamp people of Shreveport, Louisiana.   

I went from there to the common ATC venue of physical therapy clinics coupled with high school team care. The hours were long, the pay low, and I dreamed of another health care setting. A physical therapist I worked with said “you should become a PA!” I applied, and through some administrative error, I was admitted to the MEDEX PA program at the University of Washington.

Now, 18 years later, here I am as a PA. I’ve finally let my ATC certification lapse, mostly because they don’t make coaching shorts in my size, but I’ll never forget the days of sitting in dugouts with 100% polyester training attire, or of prowling the sidelines of OSU Beaver games, responding quickly to nameless demands of tape, water, and even being asked by players to go get them hot dogs. I never did that. But here’s to all the ATCS who became PAs, and to the rainbow of coaching shorts that we have worn on our path to the PA profession.

Jim Anderson, MPAS, PA-C, DFAAPA, is a physician assistant in Seattle.