It’s Wednesday afternoon, and members of the MU women’s basketball team are trickling into the locker room to get ready for practice. Amanda Hanneman is sitting on a large black padded seat, her legs propped in the air. Eric McDonnell faces her with his back bent, his hands moving furiously about her feet.
Padded prewrap goes spinning around Hanneman’s ankle, guided by McDonnell’s deft hands. Then comes the tape, starting at the top of the ankle and spiraling down past the heel of her foot.
The process takes a little over a minute. He wraps Hanneman’s other ankle before she hops off her perch.
Before every game and every practice, McDonnell tapes 28 ankles to help prevent injury to Missouri’s prized players. But McDonnell, an assistant athletic trainer with the women’s basketball, golf, tennis and volleyball teams, doesn’t just wrap ankles and call it a day. After 24 years as an athletic trainer with Missouri, McDonnell is a fixture in helping Tiger athletes successfully reach their goals.
“I’m just here in a supporting role, to take care of injuries, take care of them when they get sick and provide the help to support them,” McDonnell says modestly.
But others see it differently.
“He pretty much bleeds black and gold, and he wants our team to do well, and he knows that he’s a big part of that, keeping everybody healthy and not having any injuries,” Kerensa Barr said.
Barr, now an assistant coach, played with the Tigers for four years and still holds several records. She said she never had a severe injury, but that she had her fair share of bumps and bruises.
“I felt like I was in treatment for about four years just because there’s always something, a tweak here or soreness, especially for our players that play a lot of minutes. Your bodies get so worn down going through all four years,” Barr said. “It’s great that he’s there to take care of it and make sure you’re full strength on game day.”
To take care of the team, McDonnell works in an alcove in the women’s basketball players’ lounge. He also sets up shop on the court, in the sports medicine rooms and even in hotel rooms when the team travels and professional facilities aren’t available.
“I never really thought about it at the time, but he spends more time with our players than we do, really, because he’s around them in more of a casual environment,” Barr said.
He spends extra time with senior Tiffany Brooks on Wednesday. She sits with her leg stretched out as McDonnell pads and tapes the big toe, which just had an ingrown nail removed.
“Normally within three or four days, you’re feeling a lot better depending on how bad it (an injury) was,” Brooks said. “He does a great job of calling if we’re not at practice, making sure we’re doing the exercises that we need to do.”
For Wednesday’s practice, the Tigers wore a total of 21 rolls of stretch tape, 14 rolls of white tape and two and a half large rolls of prewrap around their ankles. Protecting an injury during a game is a tricky ordeal because McDonnell has to try and camouflage the disadvantages a player might have.
“With any sport, you don’t want to give away that somebody has a problem,” he said. “If you have one ankle taped more heavily than the other, it shows that that’s a point of weakness, an area that can be attacked.”
One of McDonnell’s biggest battles is building trust with the players and convincing them that he can take care of them just as effectively as a parent.
“I want them to understand I’m actually here to help them,” he said. “I’m not just somebody that’s down there in a room that hangs out and waits for them to get hurt because that’s not the impression I want them to think of.”
He said as the players become more comfortable with him, they begin to come to him as a source for help on any topic, including where to take their cars to be fixed.
“Eric knows everything,” Brooks said. “If you want to know something about the weather or what’s going on, you always go to Eric.”
Running a drill in practice, Hanneman is hammered in the side of her face with the basketball. She steps off the court and McDonnell steps up. After helping her re-insert her contact, he comes back to the bench with the diagnosis.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t bad,” he says. “A glancing blow with the ball. Knocked the contact loose and made her eye tear.”
A self-described “below-average athlete” in junior high, McDonnell was asked by the Platte County R-III High School football coach to consider going through a training camp to become an athletic trainer. In the summer of 1973 as a high-school freshman, McDonnell learned the art of taping limbs and basic first-aid care.
When McDonnell was choosing colleges, Nebraska’s head athletic trainer George Sullivan asked why McDonnell wasn’t going to stay in-state. He told McDonnell that MU’s then-internship approach would teach him more in one year than Nebraska’s curriculum-based program could teach him in four.
So after five years of undergraduate-level athletic training experience at MU, McDonnell stayed on to work with football and women’s basketball at his alma matter. McDonnell then worked with the football program for 17 years before being switched to women’s basketball by head athletic trainer Rex Sharp in 1998.
In McDonnell’s first year as a full-time athletic trainer at Missouri, he worked both with the football team, and with the women’s basketball team under coach Joann Rutherford, when the Tigers were the Big 8 Conference champions in the 1982-1983 season. The team, along with McDonnell, received gold rings for the accomplishment.
“Hopefully, we’ll get one here this year with this team,” McDonnell said. “We’re working towards that every day.”
For one practice, McDonnell can spend more than three hours beyond a two-hour practice frame at Mizzou Arena. He travels with the team to away games. He preps locker rooms and the court before home games. He’s a busy man.
“It’s tough on our family life,” he said. “My son and daughter both wish I was home more. They understand, I think, the best that they can, that this is what I love to do, this career.”
But don’t think McDonnell goes without recognition.
“In fact, I am embarrassed to have this article,” he said. “I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I don’t want to be out in front. That’s why I sit on the end of the bench.”
In July at age 47, McDonnell was named the Division I Assistant Athletic Trainer of the Year by the National Athletic Trainers Association. In 2004, he was inducted into the Missouri Athletic Trainers Association Sports Medicine Hall of Fame. Countless other awards and accolades dot his resume. He is currently the NATA District 5 President and is a past president of the MoATA.
“I felt I am pretty young to be in a Hall of Fame, but at age 44, I became the 44th member in it,” he said. “It’s nice to be honored by your peers within the state for being an athletic trainer and for the services you’ve done for your association.”
With his football duties over, McDonnell was able to tailgate for the first time, six years ago. He said he sits with his family on the grass at Faurot Field, a “blast,” as he calls it, and can take in games with a new perspective.
“I’m an MU alum so I am for all of our sports and for all our athletes to do well and to succeed well,” he said. “I am a fan to that extent, yes. But when I am working a sport, I try to be more objective in looking at the injury and what might be happening in that aspect more than just cheering on athletes to success.”
As the players exit Norm Stewart court after practice, McDonnell follows, pushing his mobile office of two carts, which support his black equipment bag and the water cooler and towels. The 28 ankles will be freed of their taped bondage and ice baths will be prepared for those who need them.
It’s all a part of McDonnell’s ultimate philosophy.
“You take care of people the way you want to be taken care of,” he said.