Chris Gillespie (right) well remembers the day in the early 1990s when a young Samford University football player went into sickle cell crisis.
"Prior to that day, he did not know he had sickle cell trait," Gillespie remembers. "Thankfully, by God's grace, we were able to react in such a way to help save the young man's life."
Gillespie and Dr. Ray Browne, the team physician, dug into the cause of the crisis to learn more about the sickle cell trait (SCT). As a result, they put policies in place to help prevent such episodes from reoccurring.
Gillespie was one of the nation's first athletic trainers to support SCT screening, a fact that was cited during his induction into the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) Hall of Fame June 28 in St. Louis, Mo. The hall recognizes those who have advanced their profession through "their noteworthy accomplishments and dedication to service, leadership and professionalism." He was nominated and presented for induction by his first student at Samford and current director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia, Ron Courson.
"We mandated SCT testing for our athletes well before it was mainstream, monitored athletes who tested positive for SCT very closely and changed conditioning protocols for these athletes," Gillespie recalled.
"While our decisions were somewhat controversial and outside the norm of that day, nearly 20 years later our program was the framework for a task force that helped formulate a standard of care statement for this disorder."
Gillespie, now director of athletic training education at Samford, became an advocate for athletes with SCT. He was a member of the NATA Inter-Association Task Force on Sickle Cell Trait and the Athlete, speaking extensively and publishing on the subject. Among his many awards in the profession are the NATA Service Award, the Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award and induction into the Alabama Athletic Trainers' Association and Southeast Athletic Trainers' Association halls of fame.
"One of the most fulfilling days of my professional career came when the NCAA mandated SCT testing for Division I athletes," he said. "That now includes the other divisions as well."
Gillespie is past president of the Southeast Athletic Trainers' Association and co-founder of its annual student meeting. He is a member of the NATA College/University Athletic Trainers' Committee.
Gillespie has been at Samford since 1982. "When I arrived, not only was I the Head Athletic Trainer, I was the ONLY athletic trainer and we had virtually no facilities or supplies," he recalled. Samford only had about 70 student athletes in six men's sports.
Now, he noted, Samford Athletic Training has more than a dozen certified athletic trainers, a Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) accredited program, state of the art facilities and a long history of top-tier healthcare for student athletes. The school has more than 300 student athletes in 17 sports for men and women.
Gillespie called his induction into the Hall of Fame "an overwhelming experience," saying that he would have accomplished "very little" without the support of Samford's administration, staff, athletic trainers, faculty and students.
"Although God did not choose to give me a life void of sadness, free of pain, and without tough times, I have always felt His goodness in my life," Gillespie said at the induction ceremony. ""He gave me enduring joy because He rescued me through Jesus Christ, my Saviour. Under His grace I stand here today and every day."
Gillespie got into athletic training when his high school football coach in Pontotoc, Miss., suggested it as a possibility. "I wasn't sure what he was talking about, but started checking it out and found it to be a career path that might interest me," he said.
He worked as a student athletic trainer four years at Mississippi College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1980. He continued in the field as a graduate assistant athletic trainer at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where he earned his master's degree in 1981 and became active in NATA.
Gillespie said he enjoys his work, and treasures times "when students really get what you are trying to teach them or when an athlete returns to play when they didn't think they could." But one of his most memorable moments occurred when the young man who had the SCT crisis back in the '90s brought his two children to meet him.
"That was a blessing that I cannot adequately explain," said Gillespie.