Even after years in the profession, former students of Wayne Barger still tap their mentor – pulling from his knowledge accrued in 22 years of taping ankles and dealing with the aches, pains and occasional broken bones Skyhawks suffered on the playing fields.
“My goal still is to know as much has he does; he’s incredibly knowledgeable,” said Andy Vanous, a former student and athletic trainer at Fort Lewis College.
Barger worked as head athletic trainer for Skyhawks sports teams, and in recent years, also served as assistant athletic director for development.
“He’s always just been a teacher and always around to help with any situation,” said Meghan Powell, interim head athletic trainer at the college.
Barger, recently retired after 22 years at FLC, said his motivation comes from helping people.
“I hope my legacy is that we always did the best we possibly could, in the best interest of the student athletes,” he said.
Current athletic director Barney Hinkle said Barger’s departure sets a high bar for those who will follow.
“Wayne was a true professional,” Hinkle said. “His athletic training program was completely buttoned up from top to bottom.”
Barger’s interest in athletic training began in high school. He received a scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He worked briefly at Albuquerque Academy, spent 10 years at his alma mater and then began working at FLC in 1995.
Like most people, Barger didn’t have the talent or physical ability to be a professional athlete. However, he said serving as an athletic trainer meant he was able to pursue a career in sports without being on the playing field.
“If you think about it, my career in athletic training is a lot longer than anybody’s professional career in sports,” he said.
Barger said he learned it is better to be looking down, as the athletic trainer, than looking up, as the injured athlete.
Running an efficient athletic training staff at FLC is what Barger calls his proudest accomplishment.
“From our perspective,” he said, “an accomplishment is always providing the best medical care for student athletes as they try to pursue their goals and aspirations.”
A well-qualified and passionate staff is essential to athletic training success, he said.
Relationships between the college and the community also are key to ensure injured athletes can have immediate medical care.
Barger says a career highlight for him was when he worked on the medical staff for the U.S. Men’s Field Hockey team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“That was an awesome experience,” he said, “just being able to work with that high-caliber of an athlete and that type of an environment. In a situation where this is the climax for four years – they work real hard for years and years and years – for that few seconds, or minutes or hour.”
Barger served on numerous college committees, was a professor in the now-defunct Athletic Training Education Program, which he helped create, and has been inducted into the Colorado Athletic Training Association Hall of Fame and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame.
Recently, he was awarded the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference 2018 Head Athletic Trainer of the Year.
“The key passion with education – and with the profession itself – is from the standpoint that you always try to give back and try to mentor those young individuals that are coming up through, and you learn so much from being involved and interacting with them,” he said.
The chief piece of advice Barger imparts: Always do what is in the best interest of the athlete.
“I hope I taught them to be passionate and compassionate about taking care of their athlete,” he said.
Vanous, who now works as an athletic trainer at Colorado School of Mines, said, “There’s several of us that I know personally that Wayne is a huge influence on why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Powell said Barger always pushed his students and staff to make them better.
“He always challenges us not only to look at it from our perspective, but maybe the perspective of a student athlete, or the parent, or the coach, or whoever it is that’s also watching so we handle the situation with all-around care,” she said.
Vanous appreciated Barger’s teaching style of letting students learn from mistakes.
“He lets you try things and would let you fail as long as it wasn’t unsafe for the person you were taking care of,” he said.
In 2016, FLC announced it would discontinue the athletic training major because of dwindling enrollment and because the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education would soon require the program to turn into a master’s degree.
Currently, the college is considering new academic programs and other improvements to attract more students amid falling enrollment and budget shortfalls. With new ideas on the table, Barger hopes the school can once again offer an athletic training degree.
Barger is optimistic about FLC’s and the athletic department’s future. However, he said the school will have to get creative to compete with larger schools with more resources.
“It’ll turn out all right in the end,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. I don’t have any doubt that there will still be success.”
Athletics are an important component of a school’s success because they keep students invested in their teams and their educations, he said.
“Athletics is a key component to student recruitment and student retention,” he said. “They are committed not only to their athletic programs, but they’re committed to their academic successes – they have to be in order to participate.”
In retirement, Barger hopes to improve his golf game and enjoy the outdoors. He is even picking up work shifts at his son’s company, C/T Electric.
Working with six college presidents, eight athletic directors and countless coaches, Barger has a deep experience at the institution. He said he will always be available to help, but he jokes that “the best thing may be to stay out of the way.”
“I think it (FLC) was a fantastic place to work,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”