COOKEVILLE – For Mario Cruz, working in a profession tied directly with athletics was an all but natural fit.
The Colombian native grew up playing soccer as a youth. He played collegiately at Brewton-Parker College in Georgia. And even today, years after graduation, he still finds time for the sport.
It’s also the biggest means for him to connect with his patients. Cruz is the newest athletic trainer and sports medicine specialist at Cookeville Regional Medical Center Sports Medicine at Tennessee Tech – at the clinic, he works day in and day out with student-athletes from both inside and outside the university’s walls.
“Being an athlete is a big help,” Cruz said. “I think the biggest benefit is the psychological part… understanding what the athlete is going through. You can walk in a lot of different people’s shoes. You relate to them using the experiences that you’ve had.
“It brings a positive outcome, because athletes do have problems, they do get down (when injured), but you can encourage them,” he added. “I think they value that. It’s definitely helped me.”
It also helps that Cruz is dually credentialed – part physical therapist and part athletic trainer. And his education background reflects that. He studied exercise physiology as an undergrad at Brewton-Parker, where he also played soccer for the Barons. He later graduated from Georgia Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in sports medicine with emphasis on athletic training. He finished his doctorate in physical therapy in 2009 at the Medical College of Georgia, now known as Georgia Regents University.
Before joining the staff at CRMC, Cruz worked in private clinics and also spent a season working for the Atlanta Silverbacks, a professional soccer team.
“When I did my undergraduate in sports medicine, I knew the path I wanted to take was athletics,” he said. “My interest had always been sports medicine. I chose to get more training in physical medicine so I could be a little more rounded in rehabbing. I wanted to fill that gap a little bit more.”
“The jobs (I’ve worked since graduation) have taken me toward athletics,” he added. “That’s how I landed here at Tennessee Tech.”
It’s a unique position, too, he says. CRMC Sports Medicine at Tennessee Tech is a partnership between the hospital and university, a pairing that allows Cruz to focus largely on treating student-athletes at the school as well as youth and high school student- athletes from the community at large.
In addition to day-to-day rehabbing, Cruz assists the Tennessee Tech sports medicine department, working with staff to cover various athletic events, while also providing emergency management, injury evaluation and treatment.
Another part of his workload, at least recently, has been drafting injury prevention programs. A prevention program, for example, was most recently designed for golf. Cruz said he was in the process of coming up with another prevention program for track and field.
“It’s not just treatment,” Cruz said. “We try to do as much prevention as we can – finding different ways and different interventions that can help decrease the amount of injury. That’s what keeps me busy here.”
And it seems those prevention efforts are paying off, at least to the casual observer. While there hasn’t been an exact study to measure the impact the programs have had, Cruz said there’s been at least a noticeable drop in some of the most common injuries he’s seen since starting the job last spring.
“When I started, we had a really high volume of shoulder injuries. We (also) had a really high volume of hamstring strains or muscle injuries in general,” he said. “So we put in place some injury prevention and strengthening strategies. And throughout this year, we have seen less shoulder injuries and less muscle injuries.
“I cannot tell you for sure that’s because of what we did, because there are so many other factors at play,” Cruz added. “We want to believe it’s a combination of all the things we’ve done. We hope it will get even better as we have time to implement more things.”
Outside of work, Cruz is still active in sports – soccer and the occasional mud run, he says. Most of his free time is spent with his family, which includes his wife and two children.
He says he’s enjoying the fast pace of his work so far and is grateful for the position.
“Positions like this around the country are really rare,” he said. “This is a great job. It’s the best job I’ve had. It’s profitable for the hospital, it helps the school, it provides a community service. I think everybody wins.”
Mario F. Cruz, PT, DPT, SCS, ATC, is a doctor of physical therapy/certified athletic trainer and board certified sports medicine specialist at CRMC Sports Medicine at Tennessee Tech. For more information, call (931) 783-2463.