Teamwork will be wherever you look in Frisco, Texas, this week when the North Dakota State Bison and South Dakota State Jackrabbit football teams play for this season’s FCS National Championship.
On the sidelines for both teams — as has been the case for every game and practice this season — will be a Sanford Health medical support staff member. These staffs work closely with the players and coaches and they work closely with each other. In philosophy and mission, they also work closely with their colleagues on the other sideline.
That’s a lot of teamwork going on. A commitment to collaboration is at the heart of all of it.
“At the end of the day we’re there for the same reason, and that’s to give the best possible health care to these athletes,” said Bruce Piatt, M.D., a longtime team physician for NDSU who is also chair of the Sanford orthopedics department. “That’s the part we stay focused on.”
Amazingly, this will be the ninth time in the last 11 years that NDSU (12-2) has played in the FCS title game (1 p.m. Central Jan. 8, ABC-TV). It’s the second time in 19 months for SDSU (13-1), which played in the championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco in May of 2021 during the COVID-affected spring football season.
Staying healthy for extended season
The first NDSU-SDSU game took place in 1903 so there’s nothing new about the Bison and Jackrabbits playing each other. This is the first time, however, that these two perennial FCS national title contenders have played each other in a title game.
It speaks to the excellence of both teams’ health providers that the Bison and the Jackrabbits have been able to stay healthy enough to make it to a January college football game. It includes certified athletic trainers, strength and conditioning personnel and physicians — as well as access to physical therapy and the entire scope of Sanford Health’s medical expertise.
While sports science has made significant advances in preventing injuries in this collision-based sport, medical staffs are always going to have plenty on their plate in the moments after a player is no longer at 100% physically. Over the course of a season that starts in August and goes until January, that can be a lot to take on.
“We started our season against Iowa and had some key injuries during that game,” said Chad Kurtenbach, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon who serves as a SDSU team physician. “It has been a constant balance between getting players back as soon and as safely possible while also recognizing that the ultimate goal is to be our healthiest at the end of the season. In order to make that work, you need excellent communication between the athlete, coaches, strength-conditioning staff and medical staff. We are fortunate to be quite healthy at this time of the season and are ready to play our best football.”
Handling physical and mental stress
The word “grind” is not a clinical term exactly but dealing with it is part of being a healthy athlete. In that regard, 15 games is more challenging than 11 regardless of who is winning and losing.
“I’m quite amazed at how well student-athletes handle the stress of a football season,” said Verle Valentine, M.D., a sports medicine physician who is also a former SDSU athlete. “Obviously they’re students first. It’s not easy stuff for any student. Then you add on all the stresses of football — which is not only a time commitment, but also physical commitment. Then you have to study a lot for football, too. You need to know what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it. I’m in awe of how well these kids handle all those stresses.”
The respect Sanford providers have for the people in their care falls neatly into the spirit of collaboration and communication these staffs go to great lengths to maintain.
It might be easy to get caught up in all the same things that attract Jackrabbit and Bison fans, but there is work to do. They’re all rooting for people to stay healthy and succeed on one level, but not to the extent that they lose sight of the reasons they’re affiliated with their teams.
Delicate balance? Yes. But also intriguing and rewarding.
“It’s really been enjoyable to get to know the players, not just as patients, but as individuals,” Dr. Piatt said. “We travel together and we can become involved in very high-stress situations that require some very difficult interactions on occasion. Overall, it’s been just an incredible experience. I’ve gotten to know some of these kids probably a lot more than they ever wanted to know me when they came here but I really value the relationships that we’ve built up.”
The partnerships have well-defined boundaries. Sanford doctors don’t call plays. NDSU and SDSU coaches don’t do knee surgeries. Longstanding coach-doctor relationships based on mutual respect make that part of the pact easier to maintain.
“Sanford and SDSU are both top-notch organizations and are striving for excellence,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “Our goal at Sanford is to provide world-class health care. From a sports perspective, SDSU’s goal is to be an elite team that competes for national championships. These goals align very well and that shared vision elevates both organizations.”
Play still important
There will be moments as the teams prepare to play this week where the coaching staffs will attempt to alleviate the stress of getting ready for the biggest game of the year by encouraging players to have fun and appreciate the journey. It can be easier to say than it is to do when a national title is at stake.
“I think we all enjoy being a part of it,” Dr. Valentine said. “I am proud of the kids. One of the coolest things this year was to watch the team playing in the snow banks after they won in the semifinals. It was like they were little kids again as opposed to the young men they are now. This has been a joy all season. Whether they succeed or don’t succeed, they’ve always been positive about how things are going and what it is to be a Jackrabbit.”
SDSU’s opponent has established a tradition of success that is essentially unrivaled in college sports. No college football team at any level of competition has won as much in the last dozen years as NDSU has — nine national titles in 11 tries. It takes a lot to build that kind of legacy. It is even more difficult to maintain it.
“We work in unison with North Dakota State to try to maximize the health care of all of the athletes in a timely fashion,” Dr. Piatt said. “It really allows them to do the things that have gotten them to this point. I can’t speak highly enough of what it’s been like to be a part of Sanford Health for that experience. The fact that we’re participating in this event with another team that is also assisted by Sanford Health is exciting to watch happen.”
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