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Trust and dedication: Inside the sports performance team's relentless pursuit of optimal player health

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

PHOENIX – This is a relationship that demands trust and dedication, relentlessness, coordination, and, admittedly, some luck. The NovaCare Complex offices of Tom Hunkele, Vice President of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer, and Ted Rath, Vice President of Player Performance, are a mere hallway apart, but it's fair to say their visions and day-to-day operations are innately joined in every way.

"Great communication leads to great collaboration," Rath said, "so me and Tom have to be in lockstep. We have to be able to communicate daily and we have to have that constant, organic communication. There are a lot of moving parts and I'm just excited how Tom and I have grown together in three years. You're starting the see the fruits of that labor because we have worked hard and continue to work hard at it. We want the best for the players and that is something we are striving to improve every day."

Here is a statement you won't often hear about a team preparing to play in a Super Bowl: The Philadelphia Eagles arrived in Arizona as healthy as they could have possibly expected for Super Bowl LVII. That's a huge credit to the team's medical team, athletic training team, and performance group.

Through the marathon of 17 regular-season games and two postseason contests to date, the Eagles have been – by NFL standards – relatively unmarred by long-term injuries. They lost defensive end Derek Barnett to a torn ACL in the opener at Detroit. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu had a torn meniscus that sent him to Injured Reserve in late November. Linebacker Shaun Bradley went to Injured Reserve with a wrist injury prior to the Week 18 game against New York. And there have been players who have spent time on IR – namely defensive tackle Jordan Davis, tight end Dallas Goedert, cornerback Avonte Maddox, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and punter Arryn Siposs – who have been rehabbed back to the field by the outstanding athletic training staff.

It is a very, very good picture for the Eagles as they ramp things up for Sunday's Super Bowl LVII.

"I would say it's been a pretty magical year. It's more the exception than the rule," Hunkele said. "There is a lot of hard work that goes into it. Obviously, it's not just the medical staff. It's the way that we prepare these guys. It's the way that they perform next door with the performance staff. It's the way the coach takes care of them and has designed the practice program, the week-in, week-out scheduling.

"On top of that, it's the great physicians I have, the great people I have on my staff who really care about the athletes and what is best for them. It all wraps into one. You can't be this healthy and do this well without all of those pieces working together."

Hunkele and Rath joined the Eagles in 2020 and immediately joined forces to pilot the organization's plan of action in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so they understand how to perform in chaotic situations. This year, with two seasons of COVID-19 work behind them, Hunkele and Rath were able to concentrate fully on their joined tasks and how to keep the Eagles as healthy as possible and, when injuries do arise – most recently in the cases of right tackle Lane Johnson and cornerback Avonte Maddox – how to safely and aggressively bring those players back to the field to perform at a high, high level.

Magical, as Hunkele said, is the right way to describe it.

On Monday, the Eagles took over the Arizona Cardinals' Training Facility for a team weightlifting session to kick off the week of prep ahead of Super Bowl LVII.

"I think the biggest thing is the overall level of trust that goes on between the players, the coaching staff, the medical staff, and really everybody in the organization understanding that we've got our eye on what is best for these players," Hunkele said. "It's not about just the next day. It's about the year, their full contracts, their careers. It starts with the expertise of our physicians (Arsh Dhanota, Chief Medical Officer and Head Team Physician, and Matthew Pepe, Head Orthopedic Surgeon) to recognize when players are injured, and it's going to happen in this game, to see what's going on, and then work with the clinicians in my room to really formulate a plan and say, 'This is how we're going to lay it out.' Then we present that and it's really the athletes who have to feel good about the plan, feel good about the progression, and feel good about what it means for them.

"The players are a large part of what the rehabilitation process is all about. They buy in and they trust us."

This is the saying that permeates the game of football, right? The best ability is availability. And while there is the medical component and it is layered and complex, there is also the performance side of this, and that is where Rath and his entire staff come into play. There is the component of health of the team as well as the performance of the team on a daily basis "within specific metrics that we can track," says Rath.

What Rath is looking at is the performance of the players and, within that, what impacts the performance of the players. There are so many variables – the practice schedule, the travel schedule, the training schedule, the nutritional component, the meeting schedule, and the stress of all of that combined – and Rath takes them all into account.

Here the Eagles are, healthy and winners of 16 of 19 games and one victory away from capturing the Super Bowl. The Eagles don't always do things in the "traditional" manner – just look at their practices with shorter on-field time, a Training Camp that keeps players from tackling, "rest" days for players throughout the week – but it sure is working and the players are all in.

They feel it in their bodies. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, just last week, spoke about how "fresh" he feels as the Super Bowl approaches, so the program in place is working for him. And when you see a team outscore its two NFC postseason opponents 69-14, you know it is working for the entire team.

"I say this to players all the time, 'Don't trust me on Day 1. I would rather show you and earn your trust. See how you feel. Give it a couple of days. Give it a couple of weeks. Get through an offseason and then give me some feedback.' We have all of these metrics that we can look at and study, but ultimately the players are going to give me feedback and tell me how they are feeling," Rath said. "The players are going to be honest with me. Over time, you build that feedback and match it with the objective measurables and build a robust player profile around this guy and around the team and make sure the player is in a favorable position.

"Time develops trust. We have open communications and then the players tell me they feel explosive and they feel fast and then they go out and do it on the field, there is no greater feeling for all of us here. I get out of my mind excited about it. A physical game is what we crave. I have full confidence in our team and in our coaching staff and in our performance and medical staff that we've done everything we can and we're going to come out on top in those games."

One more remains. One more physical, demanding, leave-it-all-out-on-the-field game is ahead. The players are being prepared to play at their peak.

"We're the Philadelphia Eagles," Rath said. "We play black-and-blue football. We're going to bring it and we love the competitive spirit. That's the exciting part of this. I know we're going to be ready to play our best game."

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