Exclusive interview: Kellington talks with Inside OSU's Meghan Robinson
Wednesday, May 17, 2023
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Buffalo Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington returned to his alma mater of Oklahoma State University to deliver commencement addresses on Saturday.
Inside OSU’s Meghan Robinson sat down with Kellington to talk about his lifesaving actions on the field Jan. 2 and how his time at OSU prepared him for his career in life. Below are some highlights from the interview.
Robinson: How's it feel to be back now?
Kellington: It's a blessing, honestly. Being an athletic trainer, being behind the scenes and now thrusted in the limelight back home to my alma mater. Oklahoma State has been close to my heart ever since even before I went to Oklahoma State, I was an Oklahoma State fan and then went to undergrad. It was a great four years here. Everybody knows where I'm from in regard to always supporting Oklahoma State. Even the players, especially when I play my country music. Garth Brooks is first, so that’s what we do.
Robinson: What made you want to come up to Stillwater and attend Oklahoma State?
Kellington: So early on in high school, I was exposed to athletic training at Midwest City High School. I was exposed with athletic trainers, like I mentioned. Don Fields was the first athletic trainer at my high school. Great man. He sort of just introduced what athletic training was. I didn't know what it was and then Dick Bobier was an employee of the school I went to as the biology teacher, but he also was an athletic trainer. So, he showed me what athletic training was about, taught a class about care and prevention to athletic injuries and I said, ‘Man, this is something I'd be very interested in after playing high school football.’ So basically, that's where I got my start is seeing what those gentlemen did sparked my interest and then I applied to Oklahoma State first. And then I want to say it was March of 1996, I came on site for an interview with the athletic training department. That's how we did it way back when. I got accepted to college in January, I interviewed in March and accepted in April as an athletic training student. And then we started that summer.
Robinson: Was that interview for a job as an intern within the staff? How exactly did all of that work?
Kellington: So back then, in the ’90s, late ’90s, early 2000s, in order to become an athletic trainer, we went through the internship route. So, the College of Education afforded us the health and human performance degree, but athletic training was my minor. So, I had a handful of classes that I had to complete. And then 1,500 hours. I had 1,500 hours in my first year. That's what athletic training is, it's time on task. So then the next three and a half years was just getting as much experience with different sports, different injuries, different athletes, different coaching styles. All those are those things that help you become a better athletic trainer, and I'm not certified yet. I'm just learning. So that's where my early foundation of athletic training started.
Robinson: You said you wanted to be an athletic trainer since high school. Was the goal of the NFL ever in sight?
Kellington: Not necessarily because I had that exposure early on in 2000, with the Broncos for basically two and a half years. And it was a great opportunity there. And I thought that was the end when I was done with my internship then at that time, but again, athletic training is very close knit. And the friend of mine was the head athletic trainer for the Bills when they came calling and great man, his name is Shone Gipson, he’s the head athletic trainer for the Saints now. But there was an opportunity that I took, and I am so glad and so blessed.
Robinson: How does the NFL compare the world of college football and college sports?
Kellington: Honestly, there are a lot of similarities because the players are getting younger and younger. I’m getting older and older, but the players, the nice thing is, if you know how to relate to people, and they know that you care about them, it doesn't matter if they're a rookie or a 15-year veteran in the NFL, if you really care about them, they're going to trust you. And that doesn't happen immediately. That is earned over time, whether I was at Syracuse working with a freshman walk-on, or if I met with the Denver Broncos or Buffalo Bills working with one of our star players, I treat everybody equally and fairly with respect and that's where you earn trust from those individuals. If you don't have trust, then you might as well go try something else. When we're working with people, that is vital for their livelihood to trust you knowing that you're doing everything you can to help them become better athletes or recover from an injury to get back to what they love.
Robinson: How many people are on the Buffalo Bills athletic training staff?
Kellington: Nate Breske is our head athletic trainer, a great friend of mine and a neighbor. Tabani Richards is an athletic trainer, Joe Micca, physical therapist and coordinator of rehab. And then recently, we just hired Marissa Figueroa. She's our new full-time assistant.
Robinson: Your staff was put in the spotlight on Jan. 2 during Monday Night Football. What happened during that game?
Kellington: So, we all know there was a cardiac event with Damar. When he fell down, that's when myself Nate, Dr. (Leslie) Bisson, Dr. (Tom) White, we rendered care. And at that moment in time, as everybody knows, it was a significant issue. And we as a medical staff, athletic training staff, in concert with the visiting ER because we were visiting team, so Cincinnati's medical team, and then emergency response team from the stadium, we all rendered care to Damar. And thankfully, we were very successful in implementing our emergency action plan to help that young man. And we're seeing the benefits of that today.
Robinson: You mentioned the visiting team, what's your relationship like with other training staffs on gameday?
Kellington: So earlier in the week, on Monday or Tuesday, we will receive the copy of the emergency action plan from the host team. It comes to myself, Nate, we share with our staff, we review it, we have any questions, we discuss it. And then when we get to the stadium, usually emergency action plans are posted. And the NFL does a very good job. We have a 60-minute meeting, where the head athletic trainer and the head team physician will all meet. There's about 30 personnel that meet in a secluded area of the stadium. And they go over the roles and responsibility of great need and making sure everybody understands what your roles are for that day. And then making sure we all identified the code leader. So that's one of the most important aspects of in player health and safety is having a good solid emergency action plan set in place and every NFL stadium has that. But more importantly, we were very successful at what we did on that Jan. 2. Honestly, athletic trainers are doing this on a daily basis right now. This past year, a young athletic trainer in Rochester recently certified as an athletic trainer after two years of grad school, she did the same thing. She did CPR and saved that young man's life. So yes, we've got it on film and on the national spotlight, but athletic trainers have been doing this for years. It's just now more noticed.
Robinson: Why is it important to be more noticed?
Kellington: I'm a parent. And I know there are tons of parents out there if you have kids playing sports. And schools are going to offer sports, they need to make sure that there's an athletic trainer and an elite health care provider, that is the first person in there to help save a kid, if they're ever put in those situations. We have the training, we have the experience and we have the knowledge to handle those situations. So, I think it's vital.
Robinson: How did you cope, you and the rest of the Bills athletic training staff, in the days after the incident?
Kellington: I would say just the camaraderie that we all have as a team. I would say that Damar’s parents were extremely helpful to all of us, just giving us permission that in their heart of hearts, they knew he was going to be fine. And as a parent myself, I hope I'm as strong as they are, if anything was to ever happened to my kids, but I think just the cohesive nature of the Buffalo Bills, we’re a very tightknit organization. And it starts at the top with Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. That's, I mean it's a brotherhood/sisterhood. Everybody loves each other. We speak that and I think that's what really drew us all closer together. When the Hamlin family got up there on our zoom call that Wednesday to address the team. Mario (Hamlin) said guys, let's get ready for the Patriots. And when he said that, there was just a thought that Damar was going to be OK. And we all know he is.
Robinson: Against the Patriots. What was the atmosphere like that day?
Kellington: It was unbelievable. Just the energy that I mean, let's be honest, the event united the country. And then all within six, seven days we're playing another football game. And for Nyheim (Hines) to return that opening kick touchdown. And I mean, the sense of there was God there. The divine intervention was definitely there. And it was very special for all of us involved.
Robinson: You've talked about your family; how did they support you through all of this?
Kellington: Oh, man, my wife, Jennifer, amazing woman, amazing mother to our kids, Sydney and Bryton, love them to pieces. And my family again, we’re so close, just praying together being together. That week. My parents flew up, my sister flew up, cousins from Pittsburgh drove over to hang out with us. So having family around those few days after was very comforting to know that they were there for me, but then also for them, because they were going through it too.
Robinson: Part of this is the Bills' athletic training staff has been very instrumental in raising awareness about the need for AEDs. Why are they so important to have accessible at all levels of sports?
Kellington: I just think it's, I mean, I had a coach say common sense, it's a little bit of CS goes a long way. They're not very expensive. There are tons of resources out there that can help schools pay for these devices. And the schools that do have them are doing a great job. But a lot of times, they are put in a place where they may be locked under a key or the door is locked. So, there's not access. So having them available even after hours, because that's where a lot of times school events happen. So, I think just a little bit of common sense goes a long way. They're very simple to use. If you don't, if you're not CPR certified, at least go take a two-hour course on how to be used by standard CPR, which don't have to do any type of breaths, you just push. It's very, very, it's common sense. So, I hope that we continue to have these conversations to help other people's kids not have to go through something like that.
Robinson: I know you don't like the word hero, but your heroics on Jan. 2 led you back to your alma mater to be the keynote speaker for 2023 commencement. What was your reaction when you got the call?
Kellington: So Chad Weiberg called me and I was getting on a plane to the Super Bowl because we were honored at the Super Bowl that weekend. So, Wednesday, around 11 o'clock, we're sitting on this plane and an Oklahoma State number pops up. I got to answer it. I don't know what it is. But I answered it. And Chad and I've had conversations before, so we had a little bit of small talk. I thought that was the end of the conversation. He was like, ‘I got to ask you a question. Can you be the commencement speaker in May?’ And I'm like, I wanted to jump up and scream and yell but I couldn’t because I'm on the airplane. So, I leaned over to Jennifer and she's like, Oh my gosh. So, we were very ecstatic, but we couldn't do anything at that time. But Chad and I reconnected and accepted on behalf of Dr. (Kayse) Shrum. It's been amazing.
Robinson: What's your message to the class of 2023?
Kellington: As I said today, I hope that they are ready for the next chapter of their life, understanding that their experiences here at Oklahoma State has prepared them for the future and that they are ready.