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IT’S one of the toughest questions in high school football. The star player has an injury and the coach wants to know: “Can he play?”

It used to be that a coach would come up with the answer himself. No longer.

Many high schools in Indiana and around the country have hired full-time athletic trainers to keep athletes healthy and to evaluate injuries that might need medical attention.

Both Columbus high schools have full-time athletic trainers — Robyn Coffer (North) and Kathleen Gratz (East).

Coffer said she has a hard time understanding how coaches handled it themselves before schools turned to trainers.

“It’s nuts,” she said. “Their whole mind-set should be, ‘How am I going to win the game?’ They trust me so they can worry about coaching.”

Trust seems to be the most important word in play.

“We work closely with the team trainer,” Columbus East coach Bob Gaddis said. “The trainers deal with injuries ... the coaches don’t.”

That might mean a painful decision for all involved. The trainer could decide that a key football player would have to sit out for a couple of games at a time when the team can’t afford to lose him.

“I am pretty conservative and I err on the side of caution,” Gratz said. “But I am not perfect and I am not going to get it right every time. I am confident in what I can and can’t do.”

Coffer said there have been times when a coach might question whether she is being too conservative.

“I was an athlete, so I know that people are relying on these guys to be out there,” she said. “But you have to be confident in what you know. I rarely ever would hold a kid out for an ankle sprain, but if you have concussion symptoms, you’re done.”

While Coffer, who graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University, is sympathetic, she is not a pushover. “Are you in my office because you don’t want to run today, or do you have legitimate pain?” she said.

Gratz, a Purdue graduate, is both an athletic trainer for East and a full-time teacher who has health and physical education classes.

“I love the teaching part because I can see them in a different aspect,” she said.

That helps her when students come to her because of an injury. She knows which athletes wouldn’t say anything no matter how much pain they were experiencing and she knows which students would want to skip practice due to a bruised thumb.

“Everyone’s pain tolerance is different,” she said.

One of the toughest jobs for Gratz and Coffer is telling athletes they can’t play.

“It can be heart-wrenching,” Gratz said. “They have to go through the process of grief and denial. Then anger and acceptance.”

But once they get through the sadness, they have someone who will plot their road back.

“I like the rehab aspect,” Coffer said. “I had a kid who shattered his ankle and now he is back on the field and playing. That’s the satisfaction of the job.”

“I won’t give up on them,” Gratz said. “I want them to get back to the caliber they were.”

Both said they make sure everyone around them knows they don’t have all the answers. “I can evaluate, but as far as a diagnosis, that’s the doctor’s job,” Gratz said.

“At some point, I don’t know the answers,” Coffer said.

But they have far more answers when it comes to injuries than a group of coaches. And in the end, the students benefit.

“That’s my goal, to keep the athletes out there, as safe as we can,” Gratz said.

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