Nikki Huffman’s lifelong love of sports started at home in Connelly Springs, N.C. Duke and North Carolina basketball, along with college and NFL football, were staples on the family TV, and she often watched games with her dad, Russell, even as she developed into a talented athlete in her own right. Though somewhat unsure about the specifics, she knew from a young age that she eventually wanted to make a career for herself in the industry.
By the time Huffman was playing basketball at East Burke High School, she had already taken an interest in athletic training. One of her senior-year projects was a silent film that imagined what would happen to the school’s teams without a trainer. Then one day as she and her dad were watching a football game together and the training staff came on the field to tend to an injury, she turned to him and said, “You know what? I want to do that. I think I could do that, and maybe that’s how I can stay around sports my whole life.”
“My dad was like, ‘Really?’” she recalls now. “And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, well go do it then.’”
That the odds were heavily stacked against a young woman even landing a job, let alone succeeding, in a still overwhelmingly male-dominated field didn’t occur to either one of them, and Huffman dutifully followed through on her father’s instruction. She earned a degree in athletic training from Averett University, just over the border in Virginia, where she played both basketball and lacrosse. She then completed a doctorate in physical therapy from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Following a stint with the Atlanta Falcons Physical Therapy Centers, a clinic whose name is licensed from the NFL club, she completed her residency and fellowship at Duke where her work with Marcus Stroman led her to a physical therapist and rehab coordinator position with the Toronto Blue Jays in January 2016. Two years later, she took over as the club’s head athletic trainer, becoming just the second woman ever named to such a role in any of North America’s four major sports leagues.
Not a bad career trajectory for someone who was told by one of her mentors, Averett professor Lee Burton, that some of her male classmates were getting NFL internships instead of her because some teams simply wouldn’t accept a woman. She simply wouldn’t accept that attitude. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with how good you are, you’re just going to have to work harder. You’re going to hear a lot more no’s than those guys and you’re going to have to be better than them just to get the same job,’” says Huffman. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I took it in and I acknowledged it, but I don’t think I ever accepted that that was going to be an obstacle that would shut me down.
“I just said, ‘OK, what do I need to do to get there?’ We outlined some things and he prepared me really well, sitting me down in interview situations and grilling me — setting me up to be a professional.”
Normalcy, more than anything else, is what Huffman wants for herself and other women who aspire to work in the sports world. She doesn’t want to be recognized as a female head athletic trainer, but rather as a head athletic trainer who happens to be female, an important distinction on the road to gender equality. That’s why she resists the notion of trailblazing and tries to avoid attention, even though she’s the only woman to become head trainer for a Big Four sports team since Sue Falsone’s initial breakthrough with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011.
Huffman was working toward her physical therapy degree at St. Augustine when the Dodgers promoted Falsone, who served as head trainer for two seasons before leaving to pursue other opportunities. For the younger Huffman, that hiring offered, “a confirmation, or a reaffirmation of what I already knew, that this was possible, that other people are doing it and I’m going to do it, too,” she says.
Still, change can move particularly slowly in the set-in-its-ways baseball world, and neither Falsone’s promotion nor Huffman’s five years later signalled the end of the testosterone-fuelled machismo attitudes displayed in ugly moments like Keith Hernandez’s infamous comments about Kelly Calabrese. As you may remember, in April 2006, Hernandez felt comfortable enough to mock Calabrese, a member of the San Diego Padres’ training staff, on air during an SNY New York Mets broadcast. When told she had been with the Padres since 2004, Hernandez replied: “I won’t say that women belong in the kitchen, but they don’t belong in the dugout.”
Huffman’s presence in the Blue Jays dugout has thankfully been treated much differently. There’s been no sexist backlash and no misogynistic comments. Instead, she’s been rightly received like any other professional simply doing her job. “There are more and more women in football, more women in the NBA and it’s trending into this environment,” she says. “This is a tough environment and you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot to be in it. But we’ve come a long way, and it just takes more women who are willing to view things the right way, and promote the player and not promote themselves, to make this more of a norm.”
Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, who also played for the Dodgers when Falsone was the head trainer there, believes the baseball world has “made a really nice adjustment” in terms of being more open-minded to women occupying roles previously dominated by men. “Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to being good at something. It shouldn’t matter,” he says. “Nikki’s just a highly capable person — I don’t know how else to put it. She diagnoses and almost tells you exactly what you’re thinking, which is crazy. For someone who hasn’t been in baseball that long, to have that much of an understanding is impressive.”
Stroman, who credits his work with Huffman at Duke for helping him make a quick return from a torn ACL in his left knee to pitch late in the 2015 season, adds: “There should be no divide when it comes to gender as far as who’s qualified or who should get a position. Yeah, she’s female, but I don’t think about it like that at all. I just think she’s the best trainer, PT, whatever designation you want to give her. There’s no one I trust more with my body than her.”
In the Blue Jays dugout, Devon Travis spots Huffman speaking to a reporter, sits down beside them and listens for a moment before he interrupts the conversation. “Stop being so humble,” he says to Huffman. “You saved me.”
“I didn’t save you,” she replies with an eye roll.
Travis looks at her interviewer, shakes his head and says, “She saved me.”
Travis has spent more time than most with the Blue Jays’ training staff over the past three years as he’s recovered from multiple surgeries on his shoulder and knee. He’s worked closely with Huffman each time. This season, he’s on the verge of going wire-to-wire without an injury. “I’ll be like, ‘Nikki, thank you so much for everything you’ve done,’ and she’ll always push that aside and be like, ‘No, it’s you,’” Travis says during an interview prior to his dugout intervention. “She doesn’t want the credit for what she brings to this organization and what she’s done but I want her to be recognized because she’s great. She’s the same person every day. She shows up. She does everything for everyone in this clubhouse.
“There’s never a panic. ‘OK, you’re feeling this? Let’s try this. You didn’t like that? Well, let’s try this.’ That’s her most special attribute. There isn’t anything that is too big. If it’s not working, we’ll keep working, we’ll keep trying until it does work. That’s everything you look for in a trainer.”
Huffman’s background as a college athlete helps in that regard. Averett was one of the few schools which would let her play while studying athletic training at the same time. A guard known for her defence, she started on the basketball team in her junior and senior seasons, twice earning selections to the USA South Conference All-Sportsmanship Team. Asked about her finest moment on the floor, she recalls how before a game against Christopher Newport University, head coach Katrina Williams pulled her aside and told her that it was her job to shut down Chelsea Schweers, who was averaging about 25 points a game. “She said, ‘Look, if we’re going to win this game, it’s going to be because of you and if we lose it, it’s going to be because of you,’” Huffman remembers. “I followed [Schweers] the whole game, full court, no matter where anyone else was. She scored seven points. We won the game and it was probably one of my prouder moments. Not because of the individual achievement, but because I rose to the occasion of what was asked.”
Having lived through such competitive experiences, Huffman feels she’s able to apply that mindset to her work as a trainer, trusting her decision-making abilities in the heat of the moment. She’s also lived through the frustration of rehabilitating an injury, having fractured her right ankle in two places during a sophomore year practice at Averett when she collided with two teammates and rolled over her foot. Now, when one of her players is coming back from an injury, she understands their desire to push as hard as possible because she did the same thing. “I wanted to run suicides, I wanted to run sprints, I wanted to do anything that could keep me on the floor and a part of what was going on,” Huffman says. “Right after I casted my leg I went to work out with the team in the weight room, staying with the team, staying involved. With our guys, I really understand that feeling of alienation when you’re injured and try to keep them feeling a part of things that are going on and the family that we are.”
During Huffman’s fellowship at Duke, Dr. Robert Butler — then an assistant professor in the physical therapy department who specialized in ACL recoveries and consulted for the Blue Jays — called to tell her the she was needed for a special case. Initially, she was reluctant, already busy with a full load of MLB, NFL, NBA and amateur sports athletes, but Butler was insistent. “He said, ‘We need your personality for this one,’ and I was like, ‘That doesn’t sound good,’” she says grinning. “But I said I’d give it a shot.”
Informed it was a baseball player with a torn ACL, Huffman guessed it was an outfielder. It wasn’t, and that’s how she met Marcus Stroman, who in the spring of 2015 tore the ligament in his left knee and was expected to miss the entire season. A former Blue Devil, Stroman returned to Duke to complete his degree while recuperating under Butler’s direction, with Huffman as one of his rehab coordinators.
On their first day together, Stroman arrived late and Huffman, “laid down some ground rules about three strikes and you’re out,” she says. If she was carving out the time for him, he had to do the same for her. Stroman laughs at the memory now — “I had a bad limp, that’s why!” he says in defence of his tardiness — but respect and a rapport were quickly established. “I was in a bad place, it was one of my first days rehabbing,” he says. “She literally wants to see everyone succeed at their highest potential and that was evident the first time I met her. If you give her a little bit of effort, she’s going to give you the world.”
Instead of missing the entire season, Stroman returned in September, helping push the Blue Jays over the top to an American League East title, ending a 21-year post-season drought. Huffman’s work was so highly regarded, she was hired as the club’s first physical therapist and rehab coordinator that winter. When beloved long-time head athletic trainer George Poulis left the Blue Jays this past off-season to reunite with former GM Alex Anthopoulos on the Atlanta Braves, president and CEO Mark Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins and high-performance director Angus Mugford promoted Huffman into the role. “I can’t say enough about them and their support — Mark talked to me about, ‘We believe in you as a leader not just as a professional,’” she says. “That was important to them and meant a lot to me because they’re not just saying it, they’re putting action behind it. I feel a responsibility to uphold my end of that.”
As often as time allows, Huffman replies to the emails and phone calls she gets from women seeking advice, and attends events aimed at opening doors. On a Twitter account filled with inspirational messages and mantras to live by, she offers both encouragement and tips on the mindset she’s employed throughout her career.
T/Y @paugasol Not about locker rooms, not about P.R.— “it isn’t about if you’re the right “kind” of person for your job. Rather, it’s about how well equipped you are for the job”. Big difference between recognizing differences and attaching professional identities to them. https://t.co/4yE0CwegDU
— Nikki Huffman (@NikkiG_13) May 14, 2018
— Nikki Huffman (@NikkiG_13) June 15, 2018
“If we start drawing attention to ourselves as minorities or women or to gender-related differences, then we lose sight of being the best professional that we can be,” says Huffman. “That’s always something I try to encourage [girls and women] to do. Evaluate why you want to do this. Acknowledge the obstacles. Don’t succumb to them. Don’t complain about them.”
Of course, Huffman still has to deal with things her male counterparts don’t. Sometimes, when entering stadiums on the road with a group of players or coaches, security guards will stop her and ask where is she going, as if she couldn’t possibly be part of the team. “‘The media [entrance] is this way’ — I’ve been told that a few times,” Huffman says smiling. “I don’t have any issues with that, but that reminds me we’re not as far along as we thought we were.”
The key in encouraging and extending the progress, Huffman believes, is in pushing aside the smaller slights and inconveniences and not letting them stand in the way of being a top professional. She shares that message with her ever-growing network of women in sports. She feels sport institutions need to make sure their doors are open, but that women must hold up their end, too, to be hired “not because they’re women, but because they’re the best person for that role. It’s on the candidate to be as prepared as they need to be and not lean on the crutch of being a minority in a situation.” Huffman did precisely that, putting the Blue Jays in a position where they couldn’t say no, and when opportunity arose, they didn’t.
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