Story by Bill Benner, Sports Journalist
It’s March so allow us to capture the theme of the month.
This quartet is not March Madness, but March Muchness.
They’re not a Final Four, but a Vital Four.
And all, of course, are MVPs.
March also has another theme. It’s National Athletic Training Month.
So meet Maura “Mo” Shea. Jillian Hacker. Courtney Cox. And Sierra Garber.
Shea is the director of the First Line Tactical Athlete program, which provides care, patient education and athletic training to public safety personnel.
Hacker is the Outreach Services Coordinator, meaning she manages the athletic training coverage of Forté’s community partnerships with, among others, the Indiana High School Athletic Association and numerous high schools and colleges, and several youth sports organizations. She’s also the athletic trainer for the Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders, the first to have that responsibility.
Cox and Garber are athletic trainers for the Indiana Fire Academy, which not only hosts the top soccer players in the state of Indiana, but often draws elite-level players on the national level in search of injury treatment and rehabilitation.
So this is athletic training on a significantly larger playing field.
In Shea’s case, it’s the playing field of life.
“We’re on the forefront of something great,” says Shea, who is originally from the Washington, D.C. area but came to the Midwest to earn her bachelor’s degree at Xavier and then her doctorate at Indiana State University, where she was on the ground floor of a groundbreaking program to bring athletic training to public safety personnel, beginning with the Terre Haute Fire Department.
“Athletic training in the military was gaining steam but it wasn’t popular in public safety,” says Shea. “We wanted to be on the cutting edge because public safety deserves access to excellent quality healthcare.”
After Terre Haute, Shea came to Forté (then Methodist) Sports Medicine and started athletic training programs with Carmel police and has grown the program to six other departments. She now is solely assigned to perform athletic training with the White River Township Fire Department in Center Grove.
“Tactical athletes complete strenuous activities while carrying a load,” Shea says. “A firefighter might start out with 70 pounds of dry equipment on that then gets drenched during fire ground operations, then they’re expected to overhaul ceilings and walls overhead and in front of them with all of that weight on. A police officer is repetitively getting out of a car to their left with a heavy vest and belt and might be called upon to subdue someone or keep them and the public safe. These people need ready access to athletic training.”
Shea is proud to be part of Forté’s transformative move into this area. “Forté’s mantra is to be the best place to both give and get care,” Shea says. “This program exemplifies that while providing incredible job satisfaction. Forté is compassionate about patients and community and vital to those communities are police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs.”
In overseeing all of Forté’s relationships and 45 athletic trainers, Hacker is one busy person. Just consider the IHSAA and its championships – in addition, to make sure there is staffing, she tries to attend most of the events.
“My favorite events are the State Finals and knowing that they’re staffed and that everybody has what they need to be safe,” says Hacker. She enjoys working alongside the other Forté athletic trainers to help them feel connected.
Hacker is from New Castle and earned an exercise science degree at Ball State and her athletic training degree from Northern Arizona.
“As we move forward in athletic training, we need to focus on the whole person,” she says. “That means not just athletic injuries but also illness and mental health.”
Last fall, Hacker assumed additional duties. With the Indianapolis Colts, she is now just one of nine athletic trainers in the NFL assigned to a team’s cheerleading/dance squad.
“The Colts were looking for someone to bring sports medicine and athletic training to the girls and I was the right person to do it,” Hacker says. “A lot of these girls have grown up in dance and have never had the access to athletic training. It’s been really cool to educate them on how we can help them. And again, the focus is on them as a whole person. One of the girls was so happy when I asked her, ‘How are you doing?’”
Garber’s and Cox’s duties deal with more than 2,000 athletes – ages 8 to 18 – from around the state at the Fire Academy’s Grand Park facility. For Garber, it’s both a love of the “injury to rehab” process and a love of labor. During the busy season, she says, she might have only one day off a month.
A native of Goshen and former soccer athlete who earned her athletic training degree from UIndy and a Sports Medicine degree from Western Michigan University, this is Garber’s second time around with Forté.
“I believe it’s the best program in the state with some of the best doctors in the country,” she says. “Forté also does a great job of advocating for the athletic training profession and providing opportunities to grow and learn.”
Cox echoes those comments. “From the sports medicine side of things, Forté is passionate about providing the highest level of care,” she says. “And we have a great, open line of communication with the doctors and PTs discussing the best plans for an athlete’s path to recovery. In addition, Forté does a great job of listening to us.”
Cox is a native of Fort Wayne who played soccer at Concordia High School, then earned her degree in sports medicine from Ball State. She’s been with Forté since 2017 and with Indiana Fire since 2019.
“I played soccer and I love soccer, so this is a great opportunity,” Cox said.
And you have to love it to deal with the schedule. “At Grand Park, there are 31 outdoor soccer fields and three indoors and when all are busy, it seems like an entire year in one day,” she says.
As March comes to a close, she and Garber are overseeing back-to-back tournament weekends and then for Cox, it’s off to Florida for a week at a national event.
So March Madness, indeed. And Muchness. These four – Shea, Hacker, Garber, Cox – are a Fab Four, bringing athletic training and sports medicine to police, firefighters, EMTs, college and high school athletes and thousands of soccer players.
Oh, and when March ends, all it means is a flip of the calendar page for these Vital Four.