By Jesse Muñoz/COC Sports Information Director
"We are what you call the eyes in the sky," said Erick Buitrago, who is a certified athletic trainer (ATC) spotter for the NFL when not roaming the sidelines in support of the 17 athletic programs at College of the Canyons.
For the past three seasons Buitrago has been assigned by the NFL to Los Angeles Rams home games, working five or six contests each season in that role.
Along the way he's worked regular and postseason games featuring some of the NFL's biggest and brightest stars —Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt just to name a few.
Positioned with a bird's eye view of the playing field, he's also equipped with the technological capabilities to instantly review the broadcast feed along with every camera angle in the stadium, communicate directly with the medical staff from both sidelines and, in extreme cases, buzz the head referee's headset in order to stop the game for an injury timeout in the name of player protection.
"We're not just watching the play," explained Buitrago, about what the two-man ATC spotting crew is looking for. "I'm watching individuals once the play is over, and as they go back to the huddle or to the sideline. I'm watching everything and I'm super focused on everything."
But that's just part of the process that takes place every 40 seconds, and sometimes much quicker than that, for Buitrago and his colleagues during the course of an NFL game.
"Essentially it's before the next snap," he said. "We're playing on the same play clock as the two teams."
The NFL's ATC spotters are not responsible for diagnosing injuries or suggesting treatment.
Instead, their focus is on alerting each team's medical staff to potential player injuries and, when needed, providing a description of how, when and where the injury might have occurred. And while the ATC spotting team is specifically monitoring for concussions and head and neck issues, they're actually responsible for helping to spot and track all in-game injuries.
"If there is any type of injury, we tag it," explained Buitrago. "The video personnel are experts in handling playback and zoom and multiple camera angles, so we'll say 'zoom in on that last play, somebody went down' and see how it looks.
"For a non-head or neck injury we record the time of play and tag it, so the medical staff from that team can review it as needed," he said. "But if a player is injured and has come out of the game or we see something and call down to the sideline for a head injury evaluation, that team's medical staff, along with an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, has to pop up the sideline tent and do the evaluation."
The team's medical staff then communicates with the ATC spotter to ensure that the evaluation took place in a process called "closing the loop," Buitrago explained.
If there is an identifiable head or neck injury the ATC spotter is later responsible for filing a post-game report with information related to the time and nature on the injury, who from the team's medical staff performed the initial evaluation, which unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant was also present, and who closed the loop.
But as is the case in any athletic contest at any level, medical personnel can't always see everyone. If an injured player isn't immediately spotted by the team's medical staff, it's the job of the ATC concussion spotter to spring into action.
A new rule adopted by the NFL in 2015 granted ATC spotters the power to use a medical timeout in order to stop the game and initiate a player medical examination.
"For instance, if we suspect an athlete has a concussion and they're still in the game, we really go into fast mode," said Buitrago.
Spotters can only stop the game if a player "displays obvious signs of disorientation or is clearly unstable" and "if it becomes apparent that the player is attempting to remain in the game and not be attended to by the club's medical or athletic training staff."
"If we review the film and see something we don't like and confirm they are still in the game, at that point we have full control and full contact with the head referee, to stop the game if need be," Buitrago said.
The head official is then required to immediately stop the game, identify the player in question and ensure that the player is attended to and escorted from the field by his team's medical staff.
Gameday: Countdown to Kickoff
On a typical gameday both ATC spotters assigned to that contest will arrive at the stadium three hours prior to kickoff.
After going through the check in process, Buitrago eventually makes his way to the press box area at So-Fi Stadium where he grabs a quick pre-game meal and then begins to strap in for the day's action.
Positioned near the team of injury video review system technicians, Buitrago will soon be wearing a headset and be mic'd up with the capability to talk with the referee and the medical staffs for both teams. He'll also have access to another walkie-talkie with a line of communication to the designated sideline official, in case there is ever a problem contacting the head referee.
"At first it can be pretty nerve-racking," remembered Buitrago about his first season on the job and becoming familiar with all the equipment, while watching every detail of the game.
"Even my first game, while just observing, my heart was pumping the entire time because there is just so much going on," he explained. "It's on you, and if you miss something and you're not on point, you're going to hear about it.
"I don't get nervous anymore," added Buitrago. "Some games can be really busy, you just have to be confident, you've got to be ready and hyper-focused and diligent."
But with the potential for multiple injuries to happen on every snap, things can get very hectic very quickly.
"An injury happens, then you're watching the monitor to look at it and somebody else goes down," said Buitrago, providing an everyday example.
"That can be difficult, and that's really the hardest part of the job, when you have several things going on at the same time," Buitrago said. "But as athletic trainers we are used to working in situations where we have many things going on at the same time. And I think that is one of the reasons why the NFL has us in this position, in addition to our knowledge and expertise of sports-related concussions.
"Your mind might be going 100 miles-per-hour but you just have to stay composed," he said, "If I identify something I need to be able to call down and confidently communicate that."
After several rounds of headset, walkie-talkie and equipment checks, and re-checks, it's down to the field level for the 60-minute pre-game medical meeting which is conducted by the head athletic trainer from the home team.
All told, more than 20 members of the game day medical staff and unaffiliated medical personnel gather to make introductions, discuss procedures and protocols and double check that everything is in place before kickoff.
"Everyone in that meeting is working together for the health and safety of the player," Buitrago said. "It's important that we have that opportunity to meet, ensure everyone knows what needs to be done, and who will do what jobs."
It's during this time that the two designated ATC spotters will also meet with the head official to discuss procedures and expectations, should he need to be contacted during the course of the game.
After that, it's back up to the booth for another round of equipment checks, and a final review of each team's rosters and associated pre-game injury reports.
"We are very aware of everything heading into the game," said Buitrago.
Learning and Teaching on the Job
Buitrago joined the COC athletic department in early 2018 as a certified athletic trainer for all 17 programs and adjunct faculty member in the college's kinesiology & physical education department. In that role he also teaches and mentors students interested in careers in sports medicine.
A former California community college student-athlete himself, Buitrago played baseball at Los Angeles Valley College for two seasons in the late 1990s.
Prior to joining COC, Buitrago spent eleven and a half years at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) as the athletic trainer for men's soccer, baseball, water polo, and men's and women's golf teams. He continues to serve as a preceptor for the CSUN Athletic Training Education Program, supervising one to three CSUN Athletic Training students every semester.
Early in his professional career Buitrago was an assistant athletic trainer at Indiana State University, working with the Sycamore baseball, softball, and women's soccer teams.
Despite that combined experience and expertise, Buitrago says his position with the NFL has allowed him to continue learning on the job.
"It's definitely helped me as both an educator and an ATC," he remarked. "Having the ability to go back and communicate the things that I've learned to our athletic staff, our medical team and to our AT students, just makes our entire industry better."
Among the topics Buitrago routinely brings back for discussion are new safety recommendations and ideas regarding the sideline setup and equipment being utilized by NFL medical staffs.
Each week he's also able to gather information and new insights being shared by NFL team doctors and medical staff, along with some of the key statistics and data related to all the injuries that are tracked on game days.
"I know it's pro football but some of the things they're doing we are capable of doing at our level too," said Buitrago.
"By talking with team doctors and then going back and sharing with our sports medicine students, or showing them video from games that I've worked, I've been able to help make our students aware of the types of things they should be looking for when working the sidelines and diagnosing injuries.
"They seem to enjoy and appreciate that," added Buitrago. "It will make them better athletic trainers, and it will help keep our student-athletics safer on the field of play."
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