Whether you’re a fan, a coach or a competitor, you have likely had that hold-your-breath moment when you see a student-athlete who doesn’t get up immediately after the whistle. Have you ever thought, “What if that was my child/friend/teammate?”
As part of the Gamecock Student-Athlete Promise, every student-athlete at the University of South Carolina has access to that level of special attention and care. Gamecock student-athletes receive comprehensive medical, psychological, rehabilitation and associated health care services for injuries or illnesses sustained while practicing or competing in a varsity sport. Taking care of the Gamecocks is more than simply making sure they can get on the field or court for the next game.
“We do want to get them back on the field as quickly and as safely as possible,” said John Kasik, Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine. “We also want to make decisions based on what they’re going to be doing 30 years from now. Those are the most important things to us as an athletic training staff and medical staff; that we’re doing the right things. We treat the student-athletes like you would your own kids.”
“They did a great job of trying to explain everything to me when I had both of my injuries,” said former running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a pair of major knee injuries in his final two seasons with the Gamecock football team. “At that time of my injuries, I was so upset and disappointed. Once I came back to myself and had my surgery, Dr. (Jeffrey) Guy, (football athletic trainer) Clint Haggard, and the whole athletic training staff did a great job of educating me. Now I have the ability to help other people that go through that process because of the education they gave me during my injuries and rehabilitation. It was all first class.”
The medical needs are typically met by South Carolina’s athletic training staff in the six current athletic training rooms on campus, as well as a team of physicians and surgeons. The medical teams along with the certified strength and conditioning staff are not only concerned with treating injuries, but also preventing them. The long-term interests of the individual are paramount to what they do.
“They wanted to see me back on the field, and I wanted to be back on the field, but they were looking out for my future to make sure I would be able to walk and run later in life,” Lattimore said. “At first I got upset because I thought they were trying to slow me down, but they wanted me to feel confident when I went back out there. They wanted me to get the proper rest and train when I was supposed to train. The timeline that I came back after my first injury was perfect. I felt great. My knee was stronger.”
“When you’re 18 or 19 years old, you’re not thinking about the long term,” said former women’s basketball student-athlete Shelbretta Ball. “You just want to play right then and there. They were considering my long-term future and the life I could have.”
Ball was recruited by head coach Dawn Staley to play basketball at South Carolina in 2011, but early in her first semester on campus, she was diagnosed with a rare heart condition that ended her collegiate playing career before it even started. Staley kept Ball on scholarship while she worked with the program as a videographer, and she earned her degree from South Carolina in 2015. She is now working as a media relations graduate assistant in the athletics department at Ole Miss.
“I had multiple people looking out for me, and they made sure I had the best of the best doctors,” Ball said. “They even made sure I had the best second opinions to make sure my diagnosis was correct. There were so many resources in place for medical care.”
“We have a system built where we can give the best care to our student-athletes,” said Dr. Jeffrey Guy, medical director and team physician for South Carolina Athletics. “We not only give them the best health care possible, but we can also deliver that as quickly as possible. When one of them gets an injury, we get them into the system as fast as possible. That way, we can get them back, healthy, as quickly as possible as well.”
Kasik added that the South Carolina medical staff does not feel pressured to return student-athletes to competition before they are ready.
“The student-athletes are our number one priority,” Kasik said. “You have to make the right decisions and have integrity with what you’re doing. The way it’s set up, we don’t work for the coaches because that would be conflict of interest. We report to the athletics director. We want to make good decisions, and our coaches are the same way.”
They wanted to see me back on the field, and I wanted to be back on the field, but they were looking out for my future to make sure I would be able to walk and run later in life.Marcus Lattimore
“We have an athletics director who is very specific that there is no pressure on a doctor to get people back faster before they are really ready,” Guy said. “We don’t have any coaches who are like that either. I’ve been here 14 years, and I’ve never felt any pressure to get anybody back who is not ready to be back.”
Even with a staff of top orthopaedic surgeons, doctors and athletic trainers, there are times when additional care outside of that staff is required.
“We not only have three orthopaedic surgeons who are sports-trained, but we also have three primary care sports doctors that handle the medical side of sports medicine, and we also have around 25 consultants who are available for not only medical specialties, but also surgical specialties, as well as orthopaedic specialties,” Guy said. “If we feel like somebody needs a little bit higher expertise, then we will send them to that person as well. We utilize whatever it takes to make the (student-athletes) well.”
“You have to check your ego at the door,” Kasik said. “You can’t be all things to all people, so you have to do the right thing and send them to the best for a particular situation. We’ve sent people to Charlotte for a foot surgeon. We’ve sent people to Philadelphia for the core injuries. We’ve sent people to Atlanta and Nashville and Birmingham – wherever we have to in order to get somebody the best care.”
Mental health and wellness of student-athletes is also significant with three sports psychologists on staff, and a psychiatrist is available to assist student-athletes in dealing with issues affecting their lives.
“We have a policy for kids that have big injuries,” Guy said. “We make them see our sports psychology team just to make sure they are able to handle it. Being out for extended periods of time can be devastating to an 18 to 20 year old. So we make sure that we take care of that part of it as well. The mental side in athletics and medicine is just as important.”
“It’s a great resource,” Lattimore said. “When you have an injury, especially when you’ve never really been hurt, and it’s a major injury like I had, it’s life changing. I didn’t know what to expect. All these thoughts go through your head on whether you’ll make it back or what will you do without the game of football. Having that psychologist there that they provided for me during my first injury was a big help.”
“I was also able to take advantage of the psychological part of my care,” Ball said. “They put me in touch with sports psychologists who I was able to build a relationship with. I just took advantage of every resource that I could to help me better cope with not being able to play. I also had access to a nutritionist, who I also built a relationship with, to make sure I was eating right.”
Proper nutrition plays an important role in keeping the Gamecocks healthy and properly fueled to perform on the field and in the classroom and also minimize their risk of illness. Two full-time certified sports nutritionists (dietitians) ensure student-athletes receive both team and personalized nutritional support. This commitment carries over in the dining room of the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center dining room, where student-athletes are provided high-quality, nutrition-rich foods designed by a nutritionist and prepared by a chef.
The Gamecock Nutrition Center at Williams-Brice Stadium, one of the first of its kind in intercollegiate athletics, is staffed by a full-time nutritionist. Its focus is on maximizing nutritional health and well-being. In addition, nutritional snacks are made available to all student-athletes surrounding practice and competition activities for optimal recovery.
When it’s all said and done, South Carolina’s medical staff treats each student-athlete as an MVP, regardless of his or her position or standing on the team’s depth chart.
“Everyone got the same care,” Ball said. “Even when I was a junior there, I know I wasn’t a priority in terms of someone that the team needed on the court, but I didn’t ever feel like I was put on the backburner. My athletic trainers always made me feel like I was just as high of a priority as the other athletes. I tried to be considerate too, and go in at times when they wouldn’t be as busy.”
As time goes by, the student-athletes have a better appreciation of the services afforded to them at South Carolina and the long-term impact that was made.
“I’m almost five years removed from the diagnosis, and I still have thoughts about wishing I could have played,” Ball said. “I appreciate their concern for me. It helped me to become disciplined in other areas of my life. I really became more health conscious and began to consider long-term stuff. I appreciate what you’d have to call ‘tough love.’ As I matured a few years later, I see it as a life lesson in that you’re not always going to get your way, and not everything is going to work out as planned. You just have to roll with the punches in whatever life throws at you.”