TRAINED EYE: Princeton University head athletic trainer Charlie Thompson helps an injured Tiger football player. Thompson was recently inducted into the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) Hall of Fame. (Photo Courtesy of Charlie Thompson)
Growing up in Rhode Island, Charlie Thompson had visions of playing in the NHL someday but a knee operation in his senior year of high school derailed his hockey career.
That setback, though, helped Thompson find his life’s calling. “The grandfather of one of my best friends was the head athletic trainer for a team called the Providence Reds in the AHL,” said Thompson.
“We were rink rats; we would run around and we would always go down to the locker room between periods and watch him. He would suture guys. It wasn’t until I got hurt that I realized that I really didn’t have anybody to help me out. I thought this is something I would enjoy doing. It would be nice to help other kids out who had the same aspirations but didn’t have anybody to help them out when they got hurt.”
Thompson went on to the University of Rhode Island where he worked as a student trainer and then headed west to the University of Arizona as a student in the school’s graduate athletic training program and earned a Master of Science degree.
After beginning his career at a Texas high school, Thompson got into the college arena, making stops at Princeton University, Pitt, URI, Penn State, Maine and back to Princeton where he has been the head athletic trainer since 1999.
Last month, Thompson’s odyssey brought him to Las Vegas where he was inducted into the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) Hall of Fame.
“I never started what I was doing to become a Hall of Famer,” said Thompson, 55, reflecting on the honor.
“I started into it to honor people who have been great mentors to me. I felt like I owed it to them and to have this as an end result, it is absolutely incredible. Two years ago I received the most distinguished athletic trainer award and I don’t know if that is the stepping stone to the Hall of Fame but I thought it was the highlight of my career. I never, ever expected to be in the Hall of Fame.”
The hands on training that Thompson got during his college days proved to be a stepping stone to his later success.
“Back then our education programs in athletic training weren’t as big as they are now,” said Thompson.
“I actually was a physical education major and took a lot of athletic training courses. I worked as a student athletic trainer. I had a great experience with two people that I worked under, Tom Dolan and Mike Rule. They were phenomenal and a big help to my career. Between my junior and senior year I worked in the NY Jets training camp so they helped there. And somehow they got me into the University of Arizona which was the top training program at the time.”
Acknowledging that he didn’t have the best grades as an undergraduate, Thompson knows that he was lucky to get accepted at Arizona.
“I had a good resume and I loved doing what I did,” said Thompson, noting that there were 500 applicants for 17 positions in the program.
“From day one I loved being in the athletic training room more than I loved being in the classroom or the library so that is where I spent a lot of my time. When I went to Arizona, we were doing our coursework and we were head athletic trainers in the Tucson school district. That was a great experience.”
After a year as the head trainer at Leander (Texas) High, Thompson moved into the college arena.
“In 1982, a position at Princeton opened up so I interviewed with Dick Malacrea and fortunately he hired me here,” said Thompson.
“I was here for three years. I did freshman football, I did varsity basketball, and I did varsity baseball. It was a pretty interesting experience; I got to work with Pete Carril and Tom O’Connell, who were two great coaches.”
With three years at Princeton under his belt, Thompson decided to get a taste of bigger time athletics and headed to Pitt. He then went back to his alma mater, URI, to serve as the school’s head trainer. He made another foray into the big time, working as a football trainer at Penn State from 1991-1996, going to six bowl games with the Nittany Lions, including a memorable 12-0 1994 campaign which ended up with a Rose Bowl victory.
Applying the knowledge he gained from that experience, he headed back to New England, serving as the head trainer at Maine from 1997-99. He then returned to Princeton where he has become a fixture.
“I came back in 1999. Steve Tosches was still the football coach and Steve and I went to URI together so there was a comfort level there,” said Thompson, who works as the primary trainer for football, baseball, and men’s heavyweight crew in addition to his duties of running the training staff.
“I knew the campus. I knew a lot of the operation. I knew the system so it was a fairly smooth transition. I always felt that when you come to Princeton you become part of the Princeton family. I am still very, very good friends with several athletes who were here when I was here the first time.”
Thompson enjoys being part of the Princeton family, expressing admiration for the Tiger coaches and athletes.
“We don’t have any coaches who have been problems,” said Thompson, whose family at home includes wife, Sandy, an office manager for a dental group, and two children, a son Colin, who graduated from N.Y.U., and a daughter, Ashley, who graduated from Emerson College.
“It is nice that we are part of health services but in lot of ways it is not as necessary here because they understand why the athletes are here. They are here to get a degree. There are high expectations, academically and athletically. If you look at what we have done it is pretty incredible in terms of Ivy titles, national titles, and players going on to the pros. You are dealing with a high level athlete.”
Augmenting his work through writing articles and speaking on training issues has helped Thompson reach a higher level in his profession.
“That was 32 years ago. I was sitting with Dick Malacrea at dinner at a meeting and he told me that we need people who are willing to make sacrifices for the benefit of the profession and that was a big impetus,” said Thompson, who has been a member of the NATA Governance Task Force, the Strategic Implementation Team, and Vision Quest and is a frequent speaker at the state, regional, and national level, helping to put on workshops on “Muscle Energy Techniques” at Princeton, at other universities, and at athletic training seminars.
“It takes time but luckily I have a spouse who is incredible, very strong and independent and very, very supportive of my entire career. She realizes this is a passion for me. My other passion is my family and they always would come first.”
His passion for his family came through during the NATA induction celebration in late June in Las Vegas.
“It was very emotional,” said Thompson, who learned in March that he had been chosen for the Hall of Fame.
“On Tuesday we had a rehearsal. They give you two or three minutes to speak and when I get to the end where I talk about my children and my wife, I just couldn’t finish during the rehearsal. I had to find a way not to break when I got up there on Wednesday. I hadn’t done the talk without cracking. I actually got through it without cracking which was really good.”
For Thompson, getting recognized as a Hall of Famer has triggered some deep emotions.
“I am not a big Facebook person and all of these people were commenting and I said listen, I can’t answer everybody, I just want to tell you how humbled I am and how grateful I am for the friendship,” said Thompson.
“I just hope I can live up to this. A friend of mine, Margie King, who is in the Hall of Fame, sent me a message, saying ‘Charlie, you don’t have anything to live up to, because you have already lived it. You are in because of what you have done. This isn’t a trial, you have done what you needed to do to become a Hall of Famer so don’t worry about living up to it. You have already done that part; you have done it all.’”
Princeton baseball head coach Scott Bradley is grateful to have worked with Thompson.
“It is like talking about a player, Charlie has the ability and experience,” said Bradley, a nine-year Major League veteran who has headed the Tiger program for 16 seasons.
“He takes his knowledge and puts it to best use. He is not afraid to continue learning. He is like a big league manager the way he runs his training room. He understands the strengths of his trainers and he lets them use them. He’s not afraid to go to them with questions. There is no ego involved.”
In Bradley’s view, it is Thompson’s amiable nature that sets him apart. “The most important thing is his ability to communicate; he has a great personality,” said Bradley.
“He can be serious but it is always fun when you are around Charlie. He had his choice of sports after football when he came in as the head trainer and we are lucky that he chose baseball. It is great to be able to travel with him.”
Bradley and his players enjoyed the ride this spring as Thompson savored the NATA recognition.
“We have had a lot of fun with it; we list HOF after his name,” said Bradley.
“It has been a celebration year. He has been holding court. The trainers for the other teams want to spend time with him and come out to talk with him. It is a well-deserved honor. He has made my job so much easier. He has a better relationship with our players than any of the major league trainers I have seen.”
Thompson, for his part, is not planning to leave his Princeton post any time soon.
“I can’t afford not to; I probably have 10 years left, I am 55,” said a chuckling Thompson.
“I love what I do. I don’t have days where I come in ‘oh God, I have got to do this, I have got to do that.’ You come in and you are invigorated. Here you are dealing with very motivated athletes. You are dealing with some of the brightest students in the country. You are dealing with a great coaching staff. I am dealing with some of the best orthopedists you would ever want to deal with. My boss, Dr. Margo Patukian, is on the NFL head, neck and spine committee.”
While Thompson may have never achieved his goal of NHL glory, he has enjoyed a dream life.
“I have a wonderful career, I love everything about it,” said Thompson, whose office wall in Caldwell Fieldhouse is crammed with professional citations and photos of special moments from his time at Princeton.
“I have been to the NCAA basketball tournament, I have been to baseball regionals. I have a connection with the Eagles and I go down there and help them with mini-camps. I have done some games. I have been to the big house in Michigan, I have been to six bowl games. Some of the things I have had a chance to do are great. It is a long way from those rinks in Providence.”