Rex Sharp isn’t simply Missouri’s head athletic trainer. To his players, he’s a stepfather, a teammate and a barber.
At least, that’s what it seems like.
In his 17 years as Missouri's head trainer, Rex Sharp has seen a lot of players return from injury to experience great success. One story he often tells centers around a player who quickly became one of the most popular in Missouri history — Jeremy Maclin. Here is the story of Maclin's torn ACL and subsequent recovery, in Sharp's own words.
It all started in summer 2006, when Maclin was a true freshman. ...
“We finished a workout at Faurot, and the players were just going to throw around a few more passes. I can remember Chase Daniel telling me, ‘You go on home. You guys go home, we’re just going to throw the ball.’ So (assistant athletic director) Pat Ivey and I leave, and I hadn’t even gotten home when I get a call and they say, ‘Hey, Jeremy’s gotten hurt.’ So I drive back and sure enough, it was obviously a very significant injury. Very significant.”
Maclin had torn the ACL in his right knee on July 25, 2006. On Aug. 3, 2006, he had surgery to repair the injury and rehab began. A few months later, he was already showing incredible progress.
“By October, he was running 110-yard sprints. Pretty good protoplasm there. We were very pleased with his recovery."
Having been redshirted for the 2006 season, Maclin continued to recover throughout the season. By spring 2007, his quickness had returned — and then some.
“He came back in the spring, and he ran a faster 40-yard dash than he did before he got hurt. And we don’t have that kind of success every time. And that was pretty cool.”
The next season, his redshirt freshman year, Maclin played his first collegiate game in his hometown of St. Louis against Illinois. Sharp and Dr. Pat Smith, who did Maclin's surgery, were there.
“We’re playing our first game against Illinois, in his hometown, and that’s a big game. The first time he touched the football was a punt return for a touchdown, and I can’t even begin to tell you how cool that was. For us who had worked with him from the time when he was devastated to come back and run the punt back, that was a great feeling.”
Sharp, who is in his 17th season at Missouri, learned a long time ago that there’s a lot more to treating a player than just patching him up. You have to know when to joke with a person and when to urge him to push that much further. You need to let someone know that he may be hurt, but that doesn’t mean that he has to act like it.
Treatment, Sharp says, isn’t purely physical.
“They’re hurt, and they’re not always able to do the things that they really want to do. And that’s discouraging sometimes. That’s a real emotion, whether it’s depression or whatever word you want to use,” Sharp said. “So it’s our job to keep their spirits up.”
At Missouri, the training room is no place for sulking. Quite the opposite, actually. Sharp and his staff are never afraid to tease a player, regardless of the severity of the injury. And with the informal atmosphere in the room, players inevitably become more comfortable. They go there to receive treatment but often delve into something more personal.
The training room, in this case, is like a barbershop, with Sharp acting as head barber.
“Rick McGuire, a sports psychologist, actually said that the first time and I kind of latched on to it,” Sharp said. “He said, ‘It’s like a barber shop where a guy will jump up on the table to get their ankles taped, and they just start talking.’ And you know, it’s true.”
Sharp knows who the players are dating. He knows where they live, who they live with and how they’re doing in school. If there’s something on their mind, it’s out in the open before the last bit of tape leaves the roll.
With the countless days of treatment, heckling, and personal conversations, Sharp inevitably forms a bond with his players. There’s a sense of mutual trust there, something deeper than what the average person would have with his or her doctor.
Henry Josey, a running back who has spent the past year recovering from a torn patellar tendon and ACL in his knee, knows this firsthand. When he talks about Sharp, the term “trainer” is rarely used.
He’d rather say teammate, family member or friend.
“He’s pretty much like a teammate to us. That’s how close he is to me,” Josey said. “We’re with him all the time, and he’s sacrificing his family time to be with us and be a family.”
Elvis Fisher, who has had two shoulder surgeries and a knee surgery in his six years at Missouri, takes that analogy one step further.
“Rex is my stepdad,” Fisher said with a straight face. “I don’t know if you guys knew that.”
When you’re more than a trainer – when you’re family – then you truly have the trust of that player. You can tell that person what he needs to hear, and treat him honestly. You can guide him through his lows and eventually celebrate his highs.
When you’re family, you can trust that person with your body and your life.
“This is my life … in his hands,” Josey said, pausing perhaps to emphasize the gravity of the statement. “I went down with a crazy injury, and he has helped me get back to where I am now. I can’t complain about that at all. The trust is there. Everything I’m doing from here on out, I trust him in doing it.”
Despite the fact that he’s been a head collegiate trainer for 29 years, Sharp continues to face new challenges. He hasn’t seen it all. He thought he had, before Fisher and Josey proved him wrong.
“I thought I’d seen every injury. Then this year Travis Ruth ruptures a triceps. I’d never had a ruptured triceps before. Last year Elvis Fisher ruptures a patellar tendon. I’d never had one of those before. Now I’ve had two, because Henry did the same thing,” Sharp said, stopping to laugh and shake his head. “So, just when you think you’ve seen it all …”
His voice trails off, and he just smiles. Sitting in an armchair inside his office, Sharp is surrounded by posters, footballs and trophies. Behind him, there is an old photo that sits framed on a shelf. At the bottom, it says “University of Missouri – 1996.” In it, Sharp and the rest of his staff are kneeling on Faurot Field facing the camera.
He has a long blond mustache and his black shorts are decidedly shorter than they would be now, but one thing about Sharp is the same now as it was then. Throughout all this time, relationships have always come first.
“There are going to be injuries, and somebody’s going to have to take care of them,” he said, smiling again. “I’m the guy. I’m going to try to do my best.”
The barber, the stepfather, the teammate – the head trainer – isn’t going anywhere.