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He Keeps the Panthers Pounding

Head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion, gets the Carolina Panthers ready to battle every Sunday. By Mike Savicki   Ryan Vermillion was younger than most of the football players when he first walked in to the University of Miami’s training room and straightforwardly said, “I’m here to help.” It was 1983 and the undergraduate Vermillion, once a three-sport high school athlete, was simply looking for a way to stay connected to athletics, knowing his playing days were behind him. So the training staff did the only thing they knew to do with an eager college sophomore who had little to no therapy or training background – they handed him water bottles to give to the athletes – and he went to work.   The 1980’s were a decade of tremendous success for the Hurricane athletic program and to say Vermillion hit the ground running would be an understatement. Sure, he says he felt like a “water boy” that first year, but under legendary coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, Miami won four National Championships. When Vermillion “walked out of that same training room door for the last time” in 1991, he had not only earned his advanced degree in physical therapy, he was also both the Team Physical Therapist and the Director of Physical Therapy at the nearby Doctor’s Hospital.   “It was an amazing time,” Ryan Vermillion recalls. “Sports had always been a large part of my life, so going from not knowing how to stay involved during those early years to finding and falling in love with a career in athletic training was phenomenal. I had some great people supporting me early on, great doctors helping me.”  

The Dolphins come calling

Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who had learned about Vermillion’s love of the game, commitment to the players, and skilled hand in rehabilitation and training while he was at the nearby University of Miami, took a chance in 1991 and asked Vermillion to join his staff. Within the year, he became the youngest NFL trainer in history.   “It was a huge change for me going from a clinic setting seeing a host of people from twelve year old little guys to older people, to concentrating only on football,” he shares. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity.”   But the job did not come without Hall of Fame level challenges. In 1993, quarterback Dan Marino tore his Achilles tendon and Vermillion was tasked with getting him back on the field. And when Coach Shula sustained a similar injury, he placed his trust in Vermillion, too.   “Working with Danny was a highlight for me with his Hall of Fame motivation and character,” Vermillion shares. “Great players like Danny and wide receiver Fred Barnett, who we had back on the field four months after ACL reconstruction because he didn’t want to end his career on the sidelines, along with great surgeons, make working rehab so much easier.”  

Carolina on his mind

Ryan Vermillion was just settling in to his job as Director of Rehabilitation with the Washington Redskins when Carolina Panthers coach John Fox came calling. Coach Fox was making changes to the team’s training room and believed Vermillion was a key piece to help put the team on a trajectory towards the Super Bowl. In what he recalls as a “phenomenal move,” Vermillion became the Head Athletic Trainer in 2002, moving his family first to Highland Creek before relocating to Cornelius in 2008.   In his fourteen plus years with the Panthers, Ryan Vermillion has watched a sport change and science help advance his craft.   He explains, “The NFL is a bigger game now than when I started. We used to have an off-season, but not anymore. The job of an NFL trainer is a twelve-month gig in order to keep players on the field. They break down early in their careers and they break down late. It is our job to be there seven days a week.”   Science, he adds, helps trainers do their job better.   “Science has allowed us to be better at doing what we always have,” he shares. “Better equipment, more pieces of equipment, and science and technology itself have taught us to be better. Even if you think of concussions, our care of post head trauma is better than ten and twenty years ago. It used to be about ‘rest until you feel better.’ Now we are studying the brain, what was affected, what are the triggers, and what is lacking. Concussions are a big thing, and there is obviously a big focus on it, but if diagnosed and treated properly, concussions, like many other injuries, can be overcome.”   Even with advances in science, Vermillion says his focus remains on the players.   “I always tell the guys that what hasn’t changed is the care of the athletes. That is our number one focus, always has been and will be. I learned that the first day I walked in to the training room and I live it every day,” he shares. “Through the years I have worked with amazing athletes and they are the ones who make my job so worthwhile. Brave guys, tough guys, players like Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Kalil, and Trei Turner.”   While much has changed through Ryan Vermillion’s career, there is one thing that has remained the same.   “I love team sports. And of all the sports, there is nothing I love more than football. Getting fifty-three guys ready to play on a Sunday. I love the challenge, I love tinkering and fine tuning individual solutions, and I love the common goals,” he exclaims.  
This article was originally published in Currents Magazine in 2016.    
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