January 28, 2011

Central's Weir an athletic trainer in the Super Bowl for Packers

More news about: Central

Maybe he'll look out of place at the Super Bowl.

But there he'll be. A former Central College soccer player, all 5-foot-5 of him, standing on the Green Bay sideline at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas Feb. 6, peering between towering offensive linemen as he tries to follow the action. Or maybe he'll be spotted by envious friends watching on the Sony flatscreen back home, as he wanders on the white plastic grass of the coaches' box, next to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.

"Everybody on the team makes fun of me for standing by Coach McCarthy," says Nate Weir, a former outside midfielder now in his sixth year as an athletic trainer for the Packers. "They say I'm just trying to get on TV. But not being that tall, it's best for me. No one crowds around Coach McCarthy during the game, so I can stand there and see the game."

Among those most amused is Weir's good friend, 6-2 Aaron Rodgers, the rocket-armed quarterback whose passes generate enough heat to melt northern Wisconsin snow.

The laughter continues for one more winter Sunday, as Weir's team goes for an NFL record 13th championship.

Weir, an Olathe, Kan. Native, was an athletic training student at Central when program director John Roslien helped him land an internship with the Packers in summer, 2004. Weir attacked the position with the enthusiasm of an undrafted free agent. It worked. He got an invitation to return as an intern following graduation in 2005 and he remained in that role until he was named assistant athletic trainer in 2007.

Nate went into it with the right kind of attitude," Roslien says. "He understood that it was going to be a lot of work, doing things they don't necessarily understand or things they didn't want to do. But he did everything he could to be in a position to be rewarded for his hard work. The other interns he was with didn't choose to do that.

"He's a classic Central athletic trainer. He had the customary battle with time in the fall, playing soccer and still trying to get his work in as an athletic trainer. But he worked hard to do what he needed to do in both programs. He was willing to do the extra things that made him an attractive candidate."

Roslien says it's a high-profile story, but one of many that can be told by Central graduates.

"Recruits and their parents sometimes think that's a one-in-a-million thing for a school like Central," he says. "I tell them it's the opposite. A kid like that in our program has a better chance at a good internship than coming from a big school, because I know our students so well. The guy that called me from Green Bay knows that I know my kids, and I'm not going to send someone that can't handle it. If you're at a big school and you're one of 65 athletic trainers in your class, the director's not going to know you that well. That's an advantage for us."

Dutch men's soccer coach Garry Laidlaw saw many of the same NFL-caliber qualities in Weir, who later earned a master's degree from California University (Pa.).

"There's no question Nate was always a very committed individual," Laidlaw says. "He worked as hard as anybody in the program and applied that work ethic to life away from the soccer pitch as well. So I'm not surprised he's doing so well. I'm really happy for him."

It's not 9-to-5 with golf on the weekends. It's tough work. Weir labors daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. --every day since July 25. That includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, Columbus Day and whatever other holidays bankers faithfully observe. But Weir says he left Central ready for his NFL challenge.

"Central prepared me for athletic training but the biggest thing is the intangibles Central  provides. Just being able to live on your own and handle things. Being comfortable in certain situations and problem-solving. The way Central's program works, you kind of get thrown into the fire right away.  What John (Roslien) and (head athletic trainer) Leslie (Duinink) provided for us was being able to get our feet wet and apply what we learned in class, but also develop some of our own style.

"At Central, John helped me see what the profession is like. You see his passion and that rubbed off on me.

"Soccer was the same way. You mold those two together, classes and soccer, they helped prepare me a lot more than I can even describe."

It's a path others can follow.

"Hopefully prospective students see what Central can do for you," he says. "But it also falls on students to take advantage of what's in front of them. It's not given to you."

Weir was a four-year soccer letterwinner at Central, helping the Dutch compile a 39-15-2 record in his final three seasons. But unlike the time soccer-player-turned-placekicker Garo Ypremian of the Miami Dolphins made a feeble pass attempt in Super Bowl VII, Weir is not likely to throw an interception that leads to a touchdown. However, Weir is having a quiet impact on Green Bay's championship run. The injury-ravaged Packers had 15 players on injured reserve this fall, meaning they were lost for the season. The club had 98 games lost by injured starters. Without Weir and his colleagues on the Green Bay athletic training staff, the toll would have been much higher.

"I like that pressure," he says. "When a player gets hurt and he looks at you like, 'All right, get me ready for Sunday,' that's what we enjoy at this level.

"Or a guy comes in for an MRI and the team doctor doubts that he can play on Sunday. Then we work with him and we surprise them. He not only plays but he comes out and plays well. That's really what's satisfying.

"But the best thing is when the player walks up to you after a game and thanks you for all you did in getting him ready. We don't want the recognition, but it's the feeling that we helped them play and that we helped the team."

An NFL career is often a painful existence. While handsomely compensated, the players must possess a gladiator mentality and sometimes even a serious injury can't keep them off the field.

"Injured guys play that kind of shock you sometimes," Weir says. "(Defensive back) Charles Woodson is just not going to miss a game. Whether it's a broken toe, a bad shoulder, what have you, he's going to play. He's a special player and you can see why he won the Heisman."

But Weir is also seeing the sunnier side of life with the NFL's most successful franchise. The Packers have won 12 NFL championships and are making their fifth Super Bowl appearance. The enthusiasm level in Title Town, as Green Bay is known, has taken a Lambeau Leap.

"It's unbelievable," Weir says. "We had 3,000-4,000 fans at the airport when we returned from Chicago Sunday night and I'm told when we leave Monday for Dallas, there will be even more. Everything's green and gold. The roof of the McDonald's is painted green and gold. We went out to dinner with a bunch of friends and the waiters and waitresses and cooks are all wearing Packers' jerseys. And when a player walks into a restaurant, he gets a standing ovation. They get a lot of recognition everywhere, yet it's not annoying. They're not always asking them for pictures or autographs."

It's a frenzied time for Weir as well.

"I had 50 text messages right after the game Sunday (Green Bay's 21-14 NFC title game win at Chicago)," he says. "A lot of them were saying they were more for the Bears. It was a they-were-happy-for-me- but-not-the-team- kind-of-thing. But it's really cool to see the support."

Weir realizes he's about to embark on something that's more than simply a once-in-a-lifetime journey. For many in the NFL, a Super Bowl trip never happens at all. Ask former Miami star Dan Marino.

"This is my sixth season and my first time in the Super Bowl," Weir says. "I've got co-workers who have been there three times. But there was an athletic trainer at Arizona who was there 40 years and last year was the first time he ever even won a playoff game. Some guys never make it."

Weir met Rodgers when both were newcomers during the2005 minicamp. Initially, they were drawn together because Rodgers loves soccer as well. And his older brother and roommate was also a soccer player. Weir soon became a regular at Rodgers's house for hotly contested FIFA Soccer battles on Xbox 360.

"Aaron's very unique," Weir says. "He's as advertised. He's a caring guy. He treats everybody like it's just you and him. He's not going to big-time you."

There was considerable angst in Packer Nation in 2008 when the Green Bay brass traded future hall of famer Brett Favre and handed the quarterback job to Rodgers, who was unproven after three seasons as a backup. Weir could have put fans' minds at ease.

"The first time I saw him drop back and throw in training camp, I knew," Weir says. "A lot of people were waiting for the day when he would get the opportunity to play. You could see the skills he had and the throws he makes.

"It's pretty cool that the only two quarterbacks I've worked with are Brett Favre and Aaron. I've worked with two hall of famers, if Aaron keeps having seasons like this. They're totally different. Brett was so talented but Aaron's great, too. A lot of players say he's as athletic as Michael Vick.

"I still see him making throws at practice that just make you say, 'Wow.'"

But there's more to Rodgers than a strong arm, Weir says.

"He's met John (Roslien) and he's great to him, he's great to my family, he's great with anyone," Weir says. "I don't think you could have a better face for the franchise.

"And he's just handled everything so well from the time he was drafted."

Roslien says Rodgers also had an impact on Weir.

"I think when they hooked up that first year, Nate probably saw what was expected of Aaron to be successful and how well he prepared," Roslien says. "Nate realized how much he needed to prepare and how hard he needed to work as well."

Weir's confidence in Rodgers is shared by the players. As the Bears attempted to drive for the tying score in the waning moments of the NFC Championship game, belief prevailed on the Packer sideline.

"Part of me expected something big to happen," Weir says, noting that moments later, rookie cornerback Sam Shields made his second interception of the day to seal the win. "But even if it went overtime, I thought we were still going to win the game. We still had the best quarterback in the game and I felt ultimately the whole time we were going to win."

Yet there's far more to the Packers than Rodgers. The feisty squad regularly swats away any worries about injuries.

"Everyone's stepped up," Weir says. "Going into the Jets game (Oct. 31), we called three players off the streets to fill in. It doesn't seem to matter. Every game somebody different steps up.

"They always say that championship teams have stories to them. This year's story is great."

Weir noted that the Packers had to rally at the end of the regular season just to make the playoffs. Yet he's expecting the story to end with a win over the Steelers.

"Really, we've been playing playoff games since Christmas," he says. "This is like our seventh playoff game. But the players believe. They almost enjoy playing on the road. It's become routine and they feel confident."

Weir gives much of the credit to McCarthy.

"The players are so prepared," he says. "The only people who can beat ourselves is ourselves. There was so much talk about the condition of the field before we played the Bears. Coach told the team, 'We can play in a parking lot.'"

And if the Super Bowl were played in a parking lot, the nation would still watch. More than 100 million people are expected to view the Feb. 6 game.  That includes Weir's grandmother back in Omaha, Neb., Sarah Falcone, even though she's not quite sure what all the fuss is about. "Nanna" immigrated to the U.S. from Italy years ago.

"She has no clue about American football and she thinks Aaron's name is Roger," Weir says. "She watches every game but she only looks for me."

Yet even Nanna is getting caught up in the Packers' story.

"She had two glasses of wine to celebrate when we won the NFC Championship," Weir laughed.

 

 

 

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