WACO, Texas — The Red River Athletic Conference of Waco, Texas has named Heather Willard its 2017-18 Athletic Trainer of the Year. Willard serves as Huston-Tillotson University’s director of sports medicine/head athletic trainer and has been in such role for four years. In those four years, Willard has risen as a star in the conference and among HT’s and other schools’ athletes.
When Willard received the announcement, she immediately thought about how her peers selected her for the honor.
“That was the most touching part,” Willard said. “That’s humbling when other schools’ athletic trainers think of you in that manner.”
One thing Willard thought that could have led to her selection was her drive to improve communications among trainers across the conference, especially since trainers help out fellow conference schools. When new trainers come onboard, Willard said that helping them with rules and other important information to help them be successful is vital. Additionally, Willard’s enthusiasm is infectious.
Her colleagues are not the only group that benefits from her passion. Right here at HT, Willard focuses on the whole health of athletes in a program she started called “Healthy Rams.” Although a big focus is on substance abuse prevention, Willard expands the program to include screenings for things such as heart and diabetes. And this year, Willard wants to add sickle cell screening. Willard is simply always concerned about athletes’ health on and off the court/field.
“I love to teach and how athletic training lets me do that. I like to teach athletes about how the body works and where they should draw the line. I’m trying to protect and help them, and I am in the position to protect them mentally and physically. This job gives me a lot of chances to help, and I love that.”
Willard has a natural love for the body and how it heals itself. “Nothing else can repair itself,” Willard emphasized. She referenced Charles Darwin’s philosophy that “the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”
Willard’s love for the human body and HT’s athletes is shared with other schools’ athletes. Willard said that all teams do not get the opportunity to bring along their athletic trainer to games. That is when Willard steps in, and athletes from those teams come up to her and ask if she could tape them because they remember her professional service from the time they visited HT for a game. They might say things like, “You wrap really good.” Willard noted that these are the moments you tuck away in your joy box.
And what brings Willard even more joy is when she sees her athletes walk across the stage. This year, Willard saw her freshmen athletes from her first year at HT graduate. Then, some of those graduates went to see Willard’s son graduate high school. Her biological children join her wider 200-plus family of HT student-athletes that all become one large family to Willard.
“This reinforces the family atmosphere at HT,” Willard said. She also is excited about another Ram who graduated in May 2018 who is now in the law enforcement academy. The graduate wants Willard at her academy graduation.
“The outpouring of love and support is one of many highlights of my career.”
If there were anything Willard could change in the sports medicine field, she would change the low number of athletic trainers. “People need to consider sports medicine. There are just not enough of us,” Willard emphasized.
But her career is not for the faint of heart. “You have to be able to hold the bones together,” she warned. And most of all, “if you don’t love what you do, then you are doing the wrong thing; you gotta love it.”
Willard loves it, and the Athletic Trainer of the Year honor proves it.