By his own admission, Mike Collins wasn’t a strong student.
When his high school guidance counselor asked him about a potential career choice, he was dismayed to hear Collins reply, “athletic trainer.”
“In his opinion, I would never have survived academically because of all the sciences,” said Collins, whose 25-year career as Turlock High’s certified athletic trainer came to a close Tuesday. “Knowing what I know now that I didn’t know then, he gave me the correct advice. Did I like it back then? No.”
After he graduated from Visalia’s Mt. Whitney High School in 1986, College of the Sequoias community college began offering an athletic training degree. Collins eschewed the cabinetry courses he was taking and began pursuing his dream.
Growing up in Visalia, Collins had served as bat boy for the Visalia Oaks (now Rawhide) of the California League.
“I got paid $4 a game,” said Collins. “Then I worked as a groundskeeper, then a clubhouse manager. I did just about everything.”
Eventually, he even performed some athletic training duties for the Oaks.
After COS, he enrolled at Fresno State and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, with an option in athletic training.
From 1992 to 1997, he worked in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system, making stops in Great Falls, Mont. of the Pioneer League, San Bernardino of the Cal League, San Antonio of the Texas League, and three winter-ball seasons in Caracas, Venezuela. After a brief stint with Health South in San Antonio, he landed in Turlock … and he’s been taping ankles in his 25-foot by 25-foot training room, adjacent to the school gymnasium, ever since.
How many ankles over the years? He just laughed when asked to estimate, not even daring to hazard a guess. Needless to say, it’s in the thousands. Tens of thousands, more likely.
And, naturally, he’ll miss it.
“Oh, I’m definitely going to miss the kids the most,” said Collins, who will begin a new endeavor with ATI Physical Therapy, assigned to work in the Blue Diamond Growers facility. “But I’m looking forward to the new job. No nights, no weekends.”
Turlock Unified School District is an outlier among high schools in the state since not many public schools employ a full-time athletic trainer, leaving their student-athletes vulnerable not only on game-days, but during practices throughout the week.
Turlock High has had a certified trainer on staff dating back to Ed Smith in 1976, then Devon Foote from 1979 to 1998. Pitman High has employed Markus Turner since opening its doors in the fall of 2002.
“Mike has been an excellent colleague,” said Turner. “He was on the interview panel for my position. Ever since, he’s been a sought-after resource for me. He’s been my go-to person if I have a question. I can bounce things off him and get his feedback.”
Girls soccer coach Nicole Lonergan is no stranger to the trainer’s room, having had four knee surgeries, with another on the way. She knows the value of having somebody like Collins in an athlete’s corner.
“Mike is indispensable,” said Lonergan. “Having someone on campus who can assess injuries, treat injuries, and be at a game and immediately do a concussion assessment to determine whether a player can go back into a game, is incredibly important.
"I think it’s so important to have an athletic trainer on staff and I think it’s tough not having him when we’re on the road at schools that don’t have a trainer, because we can’t always take Mike with us. So, when we’re off campus, it’s tough to make those judgement calls.”
Bulldogs football coach James Peterson has worked with Collins since taking the reins in 2009, but was also a player at THS when Collins first started.
“We’ve really been blessed to have him here,” said Peterson. “We’ve really gotten to know each other over the years and we’ve butted heads at times. But he’s got a tough job. He errs on the side of caution, and after the heat of the moment, I realize that he’s right. He does right by the kids.
“The thing I’ve always appreciated about him is just having him on the sideline. That was the real benefit. If a player was injured, I could continue to focus on the game because I knew he was back there taking care of the players.”
That’s what it’s always been about for Collins … taking care of student-athletes.
“I just tried to do what’s best for the athletes,” said Collins. “I always tried to look at their health 10 or 15 years down the road, not just today, tomorrow or next week.”