June 1, 2011

Trainer Kelli Clay applies an ice pack to Delisha Wills’ knee.

Whenever SMU coach Rhonda Rompola ’83 pushes her women’s basketball team to the brink of giving up, she always says the same thing: “Just fight through it!”

Just fighting through it, however, becomes an entirely different challenge after an athlete suffers a serious injury. That is why athletic trainer Kelli Clay, a seven-year veteran with the program, is such an important aspect to ensuring the team’s success.

Clay has seen her share of cuts, strains, breaks and tears, but she experienced perhaps her greatest challenge in the 2009-10 season. She helped one of the team’s top performers, Delisha Wills, recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee.

Wills, an English major from Mesquite, had been one of the team’s top scorers since she arrived at SMU in 2006 as a freshman. But she suffered the torn ligament as she hustled for a loose ball in a preseason practice in October 2009. The injury ended her hopes of seeing the court in what was supposed to be her senior season.

“I heard her scream, so I ran over to help her,” Clay says. “The hardest part was seeing her lie there in so much pain, but there was nothing I could do to take the pain away.”

Wills had surgery in November of that year, and she and Clay spent every day together in the training room until Wills was cleared to play again six months later. The 5-foot-10 forward redshirted the 2009-10 season and returned this season, averaging 10.1 points per game in 25 starts – making her the team’s third leading scorer for the year. The Mustangs finished 14-16 overall and 7-9 in Conference USA games.

“Not everybody comes back from an ACL injury,” says Wills, as she sat next to Clay in the women’s basketball training room in Crum Basketball Center. “Some people just give up because they don’t want to do the rehab and they don’t want to play the game anymore. But for me that wasn’t an option.”

“I wouldn’t have let you not come back,” Clay adds.

Similar stories of rehabilitation, recovery and a return to dominance abound in other SMU sports as well. These conquests are made possible by SMU’s staff of seven full-time athletic trainers. Every sport at SMU has its own athletic trainer, with football having two.

These healing artists do much more than hand out water bottles and tape ankles. They also work daily with injured players, tailoring individual workouts to facilitate quicker and safer recoveries. They drive players to doctors’ appointments and surgeries and closely monitor practices and games to make sure athletes stay as safe as possible. They also communicate regularly with physicians, coaches, players and parents to ensure that everyone remains informed about an athlete’s injury.

This job comes with long hours behind the scenes. Mike Morton, SMU’s director of sports medicine, helped rehabilitate four football players with ACL injuries last fall while traveling with the team. In addition, he juggled an active family life at home, helping his wife, Michelle, care for their newborn daughter, Violet, 20-month-old son, Michael, and 6-year-old stepdaughter, Carys. From July to January, he took off only three days.

“During preseason practice, I worked 160 hours in two weeks,” Morton says. “Even though it can be tough to find that work-life balance, I really enjoy my job because of the positive results that I see.”

Clay works during holidays because she travels with the women’s basketball team, but she says the job’s rewards outweigh the sacrifices. She enjoys the opportunity to help student-athletes stay on their feet – and in many cases get back on their feet – so they can continue to pursue their dreams of playing Division I basketball. In the meantime, Clay has developed rewarding relationships with players, perhaps none more so than Wills.

“Delisha and I have been through a lot,” Clay says. “An ACL rehab is very hard on you physically and mentally, and I was honored to have walked down that path with her.”

Rompola also gained a new appreciation for Wills’ toughness and her determination to end her career on the court – not on the sidelines with an injury.

“The best way to compare Delisha’s situation to one faced every day by our team is that she had to fight through it, just like we have to fight through adversity on the court,” Rompola says.

– Chris Dell ’11