It was Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik who pulled the trigger on selecting Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers with the 51st pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, stopping an uncomfortable slide for a player who was once discussed as the possible first overall choice. However, as with all draft decisions made by the Buccaneers, the Bowers selection was the culmination of the hard work of many people in the organization. And it never would have happened without the input of Director of Sports Medicine and Performance Todd Toriscelli.
On Monday evening, Toriscelli and his staff were named the Athletic Training Staff of the Year for the 2012 season by the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society. The annual award, voted on by all NFL trainers, was presented at the 2013 Ed Block Courage Awards. It is stories such as Bowers' that emphasize the importance of the efforts of training staffs across the league and shine the light on the day-to-day work that professionals such as Toriscelli do to protect the health and careers of NFL players.
Bowers led the nation in sacks in 2010 at Clemson and was obviously an elite pass-rushing talent heading into the 2011 draft, but a knee injury and subsequent surgery added a significant layer to teams' evaluation of him. For some, it was too big of a gamble for a high pick; for Toriscelli and the Buccaneers, it was an opportunity.
"It started with just making the decision to go ahead and draft him, because there were obviously well-publicized reports about his knee," recalls Toriscelli. "I think, quite honestly, a lot of teams didn't want to take the risk on him because they didn't know what his future held. But we looked at it as an injury that, if managed properly and rehabbed properly before he even stepped on the field, could potentially allow us to have a great player drafted a little bit later than his ability would dictate. That was the first thing, just making that decision and accepting the challenge."
The Bucs met that challenge, as Bowers was ready for opening day and eventually played in all 16 games. In a potentially devastating twist, however, Bowers suffered a torn Achilles tendon in a non-contact workout in May. Now his second NFL season was in jeopardy.
"We got him through that first season, and he was really poised to have a great second year, and then this happened," says Toriscelli. "There was some discussion about putting him on injured reserve, but we had it fixed properly and we really felt like we could get him back ready to play. Sure enough, from the day he came back against Minnesota, there was never a drop in his play. He was even more explosive than he was the year before. Again, to sit down, come up with a plan and then actually execute and have it work…he's a great example of that, with both injuries."
Bowers spent the first seven weeks of the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform list, but was activated on October 25, just in time to play in the Bucs' seventh game at Minnesota on a Thursday night. He had a sack in just his second game back, at Oakland, and went on to play in each of the last nine games, contributing 13 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and a pass defensed. With Michael Bennett moving on to Seattle in free agency earlier this month, Bowers is the obvious first choice to take over as the starting left end in his third NFL season.
There have been many, many similar stories during Toriscelli's 16 years as the Buccaneers' head trainer, most of them far less publicized. RB Cadillac Williams returned from two catastrophic knee injuries to revive his career, for instance, and Toriscelli's staff is currently working on getting Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks back in place for 2013. Toriscelli credits continuity on his staff through the years and a group of dedicated, hard-working players for making so many training-room successes possible. His current staff includes Director of Rehabilitation Shannon Merrick and Assistant Athletic Trainer John Ames, and Toriscelli also singled out his long-time assistant, Pat Jernigan, who left in 2012 to become the head trainer at Ole Miss.
"The bottom line is that we're committed to the health and safety of the player no matter what the injury is," says Toriscelli. "That's our main priority. But the most gratifying thing for us, and I think any staff, is when you have a player who sustains a potentially career-threatening injury or has a big surgery and you're on a mission to return them to the level of play they were at before they got hurt. That's obviously not an easy thing, and it takes a huge commitment on the player's part, but I'm proud of our track record on that."
Toriscelli, who started with the Buccaneers in 1997 under Tony Dungy and has since been a key staff member for four different head coaches, credited continuity on his staff for much of its success. Merrick is beginning his 10th season with the team and Jernigan worked more than a dozen years in Tampa, beginning as an intern, before departing for Ole Miss. That continuity has helped within the training staff but also in regards to forging strong relationships with the players.
"I think one of the things that separates some athletic training staffs from others is the ability to form that relationship and gain the players' trust," said Toriscelli. "Really, without their trust you can't do your job. Fortunately, with the help of the guys on my staff, we've been able to have these guys trust us with their care, to put forth the effort that we need and to slow down when we ask them to. Da'Quan's a great example of that, as is Davin, all these guys that have had these big injuries. We're very fortunate to have these guys who trust us, and I think we've earned that. But it's not a given."
Injuries are an unavoidable aspect of managing an NFL team, but a strong training staff can do quite a bit to lessen their impact. Prevention, maintenance and rehabilitation – Toriscelli and his staff have excelled at every aspect of this crucial task.
"It hasn't always worked out, but I think if you look at some of the major injuries we've had over the years, we've been one of the staffs that has been able to get these guys back and have them return to the elite level they were at before they got hurt," he said.
The Buccaneers certainly did so in 2012, and professional trainers around the NFL took notice. On Monday night in Baltimore, Toriscelli, Merrick and Ames got the recognition to prove it.
"It's really a big honor for a couple of reasons, number one because the Ed Block Foundation is such a phenomenal organization," said Toriscelli. "Their goal is to support at-risk or abused kids…that mission and the whole foundation is just an unbelievable thing. So that makes it special.
"Plus, the athletic training staff of the year is voted on by NFL athletic trainers. Whenever you get an award that's given by your peers, that makes it special. I have seen different staffs get this through the years, and I've obviously voted every year, and there are just some really great people in this profession. Really, it's the best of the best, and it's just an honor to have those guys select us."