Every time the Green Bay Packers take the football field, fans want the absolute best performance from the Green and Gold. In fact, they expect it. What's often taken for granted however, are the people who help the players get physically ready for these games.
Of course these people are the training staff of the Green Bay Packers and their value should never be underestimated. Without them, the sprained ankles, tight hamstrings, sore knees and several other aches and pains wouldn't heal as quickly or completely.
The Packers make sure that their players get some of the best treatment in the NFL. They have two doctors, three full-time trainers, and three seasonal interns that also lend a healing hand.
Head Trainer Pepper Burruss, who has spent 12 seasons with the Packers and 28 in the NFL overall, said the team's medical set-up is very successful.
"Essentially, we have six certified trainers in the training room, which sounds like a lot but it is very, very efficient - much more than it used to be," Burruss explained. "There used to be training staffs that had one trainer and had part-time help but the entire league is adding more and more.
"We used to get by with one seasonal intern but now we choose to select trainers who have graduated from curricula that have allowed them to be nationally certified. In our case, the three that are with us this year are nationally certified already."
Overseeing the medical department are Dr. Patrick McKenzie, the team physician, and Dr. John Gray, the associate team physician. Burruss is joined by Bryan Engel and Kurt Fielding, both assistant trainers, in addition to interns Matt Hankes, Jason Lisko and Jason Morgan.
Burruss said that everyone on the staff works well with each other and they all play a role in helping the players get the care they need.
"Coach Sherman is certainly our football boss, but our medical boss is Doctor McKenzie and Doctor Gray," Burruss said. "They like to tell you that we run the training room and we like to tell you that they run the training room."
Regardless of who runs the training room, there is plenty of work to go around. The trainers are available to the players throughout the day and they travel with the team as well. Even when the Packers play at home, there are at least a couple of trainers that stay in the team's hotel the night before the game in case they are needed.
Burruss said it's hard to get an accurate assessment of how many hours the trainers spend with the team because if travel were included, "the numbers would be off the charts." It's not uncommon for the trainers to work 13-hour days during the season and Burruss said during the off-season they still put in 40-hour weeks.
"Certainly what a lot of people think of is the stardom and the allure of game day," Burruss said. "That's something special. Anybody in America would do that and they would do it for free. It's the other six days a week for the entire season without a day off that people have no idea about."
Still, Burruss isn't complaining.
"The variety is the best part, Burruss said. "When the season's over, there's the draft. When the draft is over, then there's the mini-camps. When the mini-camps are over then it's the season. It's the changing routine that keeps you stimulated and anxious to keep working."
It's not only the players that count on the trainers, however. Sherman and the NFL office also rely on them for injury evaluations. That leads to a long working day on Wednesday when the doctor's evaluations are made, the players are treated, and the injury report for the league starts to take shape.
That's just a glimpse of what the trainers do, according to Burruss.
"Injury grievances, dealing with the NFL players union, players seeking second opinions, agents seeking feedback are just a few of the other things we do away from the treatment," Burruss explained. "The list goes on and on to things that even players in our own locker room have no clue we do.
"People think that maybe I am playing solitaire behind my computer, but in cases where someone got injured during camp and was put on injured reserve, we are arranging therapies and taking care of communication between doctors and agents and coaches and on and on."
Game days also have challenges of their own, but Burruss said he and his staff prefer the comforts of home to playing on the road.
"The players have to be in the locker room two hours before the game starts, and then we start our routine of taping, treating and stretching and heating and rubbing and all of the various things that we do in our sports medicine world," Burruss said.
"As opposed to away games, we have access to our Jacuzzi-style hot tank, our cold pool, our exercise pool, all of our different treatment tables. When you are at an away game, in most cases you have an absolutely bare minimum room with some tables in it."
The challenges that come with playing on the road for the players also occur with the training staff, and those obstacles often occur away from the field.
"Occasionally, they need over-the-counter medication for headaches on the way home or someone could have heat cramps," Burruss said. "They could have an injury that requires ice or wrapping. Or a cut that is bleeding, all those types of things we take care of on the way home and we carry supplies on the plane for that as well."
With all of his experience, Burruss has seen his share of injury situations, including those that have affected the Packers travel plans.
"We've had to hold the plane on the ground before we could take off," Burruss explained. "That happened with Sterling Sharpe when he had body cramps that really didn't hit him until he was situated on the plane. Our doctors had to lay him down and give him an IV right there on the plane."
Despite being in such a pressure-packed profession, Burruss manages to keep it all in perspective. He exhibits a great deal of humility when discussing what he and the training staff mean to the team.
"Sometimes when I'm joking with people I tell them that I tape ankles and make Gatorade and that's all I do," Burruss said. "We don't take ourselves overly seriously. If we didn't tape their ankles, would they still play a football game? Arguably yes, but we've always taken the approach that God does the healing and we just do the helping.
"Where we get involved with injuries is we help them do it faster and probably more completely and to a higher level than they would probably attain on their own. We maintain that sports medicine is more of a philosophy than it is a specialty."