Coming Home

In June, OSU alum Ariko Iso (’93) returned to the Beavers to become the Head Football Athletic Trainer. It makes Iso, 40, only the third female football trainer at the Division I level.

Prior to returning to OSU, Iso worked as an assistant athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. She was the first – and only – female athletic trainer in the NFL. Iso made three trips to the Super Bowl with the team.

We recently had the chance to talk to Iso about working in the NFL, team bonding, mentoring students, and how tall Tom Brady really is.

How does it feel to be back in Corvallis?

If I moved to the city that I never lived in and I didn’t know anybody, I think it would have been much harder. Here, the facilities are new, there are a lot of new buildings – Corvallis has changed a lot in the last 20 years. But I know the geographical landmarks and I can locate myself driving around, so I can be a little bit more independent than moving to a brand new place. There’s a lot of good memories here, same buildings, same restaurants. There’s new and improved stuff too, so I’m looking forward to getting to know that as well.

Do you feel like your goodbye with the Steelers was incomplete because of the lockout?

Probably it was better for me. It would have been hard if all the players and the coaches were around and I was involved with their work. I know that people are coming back now and are motivated, and I kind of miss them. It was a fun and great 9 years, and I have no regrets, like ‘ I should have done this, or I wanted to do more.’ I’m going to be a fan and cheer my previous team and enjoy Oregon State.

What helped you make the decision to come back here?

During the last few years I have been – not looking hard, but keeping my ears and eyes open for any opportunity to arise to utilize my experience and maybe progress my professional career. In the NFL, people move around from Second Assistant to First Assistant, to sometimes a head position. So within thirty-two teams, staff moves around, but being a female athletic trainer, I think it’s rare enough. With only 100 people working in the league, my opportunity for advancement was really limited.

I don’t know within the next five years any other team that would consider a female as medical staff. So as much as I love working for the Steelers and Mr. Rooney, I thought I needed some change. When I was an undergraduate student that was the dream – working in a Pac-10 or Pac-12 school. So after all this journey, I finally got what I dreamed of when I started.

Is it still pretty unusual for a woman to be a trainer in a big conference?

No, there are a lot of female athletic trainers who work in big conferences. If you think about the history of athletic training, back in the 70s it was a male dominated profession. And currently, the ratio is about 50/50. If you look at the younger generation, most of the athletic training programs are female dominated.

Did it frustrate you to know you had limited advancement possibilities the NFL?

I am sure in the future there will be more qualified people, and things change and opportunities will open. I didn’t feel a lot of frustration because all the people I worked with in a professional setting – male athletic trainers, female physcians – everyone’s very qualified. I think a quality person would do a great job in any situation, but I don’t think of myself as just a female athletic trainer, and therefore I don’t have many strong feelings. I just didn’t advance.

Your overriding way of thinking about is you’re a professional.

Yeah. I’d like to call myself an athletic trainer, not just a male or female athletic trainer. In the long run I hope we don’t have to think about whether we are hiring female or male, that kind of gender issue. If we could not think about it that would be great, but maybe there’s a long way to go.

Do you think that other people you were working with have to come to that attitude as well?

I have been so fortunate at the Steelers that I was accepted, and I think many athletes, coaches and support staff all see athletic trainers as athletic trainers. As I mentioned all the college athletes have been working with female athletic trainers, so when they come to the NFL they don’t really think anything. Then they find out and say, ‘Ariko, are you the only one working in the NFL?’ I’d tell them, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ That’s more the athletes’ reaction.

I heard the history of the reason why the Steelers always had female summer interns was about 20 years ago, Mr. Rooney’s niece from Ireland, who’s a physiotherapist, was going to come and work for the summer training camp. That’s the way they started. They liked the effect of having females in the training room. People behave a little better.

Can you talk to us about what your life will be like as the head football trainer throughout the season?

So people think that football is a seasonal sport, but we do have spring football, which is 15 days of practice spread through 4-5 weeks. In winter we have recruits coming in, and you have to give them physicals and make sure they’re healthy. Then winter conditioning starts, and athletes are lifting and running and conditioned through the year.

Of course during the seasons and training camp is the busiest time of the year. I expect my schedule to be more than 12 hours a day per day, and 24/7 on call. We don’t have weekends.

Ariko Iso with running back Malcom Agnew

Ariko Iso helps prep running back Malcom Agnew for practice.

That must make you feel connected to the team and staff.

Yes, I think we all think of it as a big family. Everybody works together, and this is four or five years of an athlete’s life. I believe as a coach or medical staff who tend to stay longer than the athletes, we get to see their growth. It’s like age 17-22 are the most important times of their lives. They come into training the first time being away from home. By the time they graduate, some of them are married and have their own kids and families. We are all a part of their growth, just a little part, but we are.

That sounds rewarding.

It is. An average NFL career is less than 3 years. A lot of rookie free agents, their career is about a year, so we get to meet them, give physicals, work with them, and they might be released, go elsewhere. They might be successful elsewhere, or we might never see them again. So I think college definitely gives you a little longer with everybody. I’m looking forward to having that, and not too much of the business side. You work so hard in collegiate athletics, but you might gain a scholarship or get a degree. That’s the achievement. But in the NFL it’s really businesslike, even though you try as hard as you can, but don’t have the ability – somebody else is better than you and you’ll be gone tomorrow.  Sometimes there is not much time to connect, or you order contact lenses, or this and that, and by the time everything arrives that person might be gone.

What else excites you about being here?

Well, really I started here. I came from Japan after high school, and Corvallis was the first city or town that I lived in away from my family. Everything started here. I never knew what an athletic trainer’s life was about. I think back my undergrad experience. Yes it was hard, but now I think back on all the fun memories.

I think too I was a little bit far away from the athletic training educational side the last 9 years. College students come in with fresh knowledge they want to try, and they want to learn. They’ll ask questions about things I’ve never learned before, because the curriculum has changed. So now I get to be closer to that academic side. That’s another exciting part too. We evaluated students with the Steelers, but they don’t get to jump right in to look at an athlete’s knee or ankle. They observe and we explain. I assume college level will be a little different, with more involvement.

Which sports are you interested in? .

I played basketball growing up. I started with playing tennis with my family. But I did skiing and snowboarding, too. I did softball and soccer too.

Being in Pittsburgh I learned a whole lot about hockey. And I always liked football, but when I was working at Portland State University I wasn’t a huge professional sports fan. Sunday is your day off.

So when I started my internship with the Steelers, I didn’t know who anybody was. I’d say, ‘Oh, Jerome Bettis. I guess he’s famous.’  Everybody I worked with was probably really famous, but I didn’t know anybody’s face, and I kept asking all these people their names. But their ankles are ankles. Their knees are knees. It’s no different from any other injury you deal with.

I think athletic trainers who are in this field long enough don’t really get starstruck  much. It’s funny, though. If I run into an actor or singer, I get all, ‘Wow.’ But then I run into Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. We know they’re superstars or a Pro Bowl quarterback, but it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s taller than I thought.’

What would you like to accomplish here?

Of course we’d like to work with a winning program. But I’d also like to have a small and positive effect on these student athletes and the future athletic trainers – the students that we work with. That’s one big goal I’d like to achieve. Plus if I could bring something I learned in the last 9 years to this program – whether it’s the care of athletes to work ethics and communicating with the administrators, coaches, parents and players.  If I could assist my assistant trainers to meet their goals, that’s great too.

Anything you’d like to add?

Corvallis is a really unique town. Everybody loves Oregon State and supports Oregon State so much, and that’s really exciting. There are a lot of fans and a lot of orange and black. Orange I need to get used to. But I’m taking it all in about Corvallis while I am here.

2 Responses to “Coming Home”

  1. Mary Ann Estok says:

    Nice article Ariko!!! You will do a great job in Oregon!

  2. Hanna says:

    I liked your article! Did you you get a masters in ahtletic training as well? I am looking into it and I was wondering what your education was.