It was 2016, in a building full of men, when Tiffany Morton MS ’13 acted girlier than ever before.
Morton was used to working with men. As an athletic training student at FIU, she helped football players recover from injuries and stay in top shape.
But girly enthusiasm rushed forth when she was sitting in the Kansas City Chiefs' headquarters and the team's general manager said, “We want you to work for the Chiefs.”
She jumped up, danced around the room and squealed. Morton had just become the first female trainer in Chiefs’ history.
“It was the beginning of a dream. And I say the beginning because it was just step one. The opportunity was given. The opportunity was starting for not just me, and that’s when I realized, ‘This is not just me here,’” Morton said.
About three-quarters of athletic training students are female, according to Rick Burkholder, the Chiefs’ head athletic trainer and former president of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS).
Their unequal representation in the NFL is beginning to change.
Burkholder and Morton explained this in person when they visited a master’s athletic training class at FIU while in Miami for the Super Bowl, which the Chiefs are competing in for the first time in 50 years.
The duo offered to answer questions about almost anything. The students let them rip: What sacrifices did you make to reach the NFL? How do you handle the media? In an event like Kobe Bryant’s sudden death, where players across the NBA were mourning, how much responsibility do you have to make sure an athlete’s mental health is good enough to play?
Their Q&A lasted three hours.
“I know what this program is. I take the best students out of it. I took her out of it,” Burkholder said, looking at Morton. “You’re getting the best skills here. But you got to develop your people skills.”
How do you develop ‘people skills?’ You talk to a lot of people, as Tiffany Morton did at FIU.
FIU’s program stresses that athletic training is an interdisciplinary profession. You will have conversations with not only different types of doctors, but at different times, such as in the middle of surgery or during an evaluation. So FIU educates its students on these scenarios.
“Being able to do multiple conversations with the right audience at the right time, that was integral in my career building,” Morton said.
Then there is building relationships with athletes. This can be difficult. If an injured athlete cannot trust his or her trainer, then the rehabilitation process is in jeapordy. Burkholder explained it simply: Don’t treat athletes, treat people.
“He hit the nail right on the head. That’s going to be something I definitely stick to myself,” said Josh Sanders, an athletic training student and intern with the Miami Dolphins.
When you meet athletes from all over the world, like Morton did at FIU, you get better at building relationships with different types of people.
“The reason I came to Miami," said Morton who is from Colorado, "is because I love the diversity here. FIU embraces that. Whether it’s interacting with the different teams that you have here and the sports you have, they all have different backgrounds. Being able to have conversations with them. Being able to relate to a group of people who maybe have backgrounds from Haiti, maybe have backgrounds from Cuba. [They] have very different histories.... You have to be able to take that into consideration, or their cultures in general,” she said.
Some athletes just prefer to work with a woman. Morton learned this at FIU and Burkholder knew it, too. As president of PFATS, he worked to get more women in the league. He knew it would make the profession better.
“It was just very inspirational to see,” said Kayli Rudd, who will intern with the Jacksonville Jaguars in their preseason camp. “This is the career that I’ve chosen, and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen for me in the future and with everything that they’ve provided for us, then what I can provide for the athletic training community.”