McGinn: Engel extends tradition of top trainers
GREEN BAY – To most outsiders, the name Bryan “Flea” Engel means next to nothing.
Within the offices, locker cubicles and corridors of the Green Bay Packers’ administrative complex, however, Engel ranks as one of the organization’s best-liked and more important employees.
Engel is only the fifth head trainer in team history, one that dates to 1919. He was promoted in June 2015 to oversee probably the most experienced training staff in the NFL.
Two players, running back James Starks and linebacker Datone Jones, went so far as to say everyone on the team loved Engel, and nose tackle B.J. Raji said the same thing last year. In 2015, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Mike Neal said they loved him, too.
“He’s one of the best people I know,” Starks said this week. “I don’t think anybody could ever say anything bad about ‘Flea.’”
A request to interview Engel, who is 42, the father of three sons and a native of Hanover Park, Ill., was denied by club officials, a spokesman indicated.
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Even the healthiest of players are taped by trainers every practice, and when injury strikes and they’re most vulnerable it’s often the trainer who serves as confidant and treatment/rehabilitation supervisor.
“’Flea’ is a people person in the training room,” Jones said. “A lot of his work goes unnoticed here in Green Bay. We’ve had a lot of guys really beat-up and you see guys bounce back. That’s a (sign) we’ve got really good trainers taking care of us.”
Besides Engel, a seasonal/intern from 1997-98 and a full-time assistant since ’99, the staff includes Pepper Burruss, a 24-year employee who was shifted from head trainer to director of sports medicine administration when Engel was promoted; and assistant trainers Kurt Fielding, who is in his 29th season with the Packers, and Nate Weir, who is in his 12th year.
The combined 85 seasons of experience in Green Bay for the top four trainers places the Packers slightly ahead of the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts as the most seasoned staff in the NFL.
Engel was named NFC assistant athletic trainer of the year in 2013. Given that award and his growing reputation in the league, it’s likely general manager Ted Thompson promoted Engel to prevent losing him and ensure he would succeed Burruss, who is 62.
In his 16 months running the department, Engel has tried to minimize change and sustain the remarkable continuity, players say.
“It’s good for the players,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga, whose seven-year career has been marked by one major injury after another. “When you see different faces all the time, as an athlete, how do you gain the trust in that person?
“When you’re diagnosed with a knee injury or a shoulder or a calf, you’ve got to build trust with the person that’s taking care of you and telling you what to do and rehabbing you. Keeping everything the same in there was a big thing.”
Engel, a kinesiology graduate of the University of Illinois, worked as a summer intern and then seasonal intern from 1995-97 in New England under coaches Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll.
In his seven years dealing with Engel, former Packers punters Tim Masthay saluted him for listening to players, staying abreast of latest research, experimenting with new technology and effectively providing treatment.
“In the past we had certain veterans that had things their own way,” Raji said a year ago. “I’m not a name dropper … some of the bigger name defensive backs. ‘Flea’ would have to oblige to them. He’s really paid his dues, and I think everyone’s happy he’s the head trainer.”
Training methods have come a long way, to say the least.
At some point in the team’s leather-helmet era, Dave Woodward became the Packers’ first official trainer. In an interview with Packers historian Cliff Christl, the late Herm Schneidman, a running back from 1935-39, offered his impressions of Woodward.
“He was a heck of a guy,” Schneidman said. “He brought a little machine with him that had a positive pole and a negative pole. You’d lie on the table and put the negative pole on your back, then take the positive pole and it would work every muscle in your arm or leg or back. In two days time, he’d have you running.”
Woodward died in 1940 and was replaced by Carl “Bud” Jorgensen, a native of Marinette and a graduate of Green Bay West High School. He was an equipment man starting in 1924 before becoming Woodward’s assistant in the mid-1930s. His 47-year career with the Packers ended in 1970, and six years later he was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
In 1961, the cigar-chomping Jorgensen convinced Domenic Gentile, the basketball coach, history teacher and athletic trainer at West De Pere High School, to call Vince Lombardi and inquire about a job to help him out taping ankles.
Gentile went on to work part-time for the Packers until taking over for Jorgensen in 1969.
“He did not have any formal medical training,” Gentile wrote in his book, “The Packer Tapes,” that he wrote with Gary D’Amato in 1995. “He learned on the job, by trial and error, and he was terrific. Bud had an encyclopedic mind when it came to athletic training.”
A star athlete for the Hurley Midgets in far northern Wisconsin, Gentile later played football at Gogebic (Mich.) Community College and North Dakota State. Known as “Domo,” Gentile was a mild-mannered chap who served the team with distinction for 32 years.
“He’d walk into dinner at training camp and all the players would yell, ‘Domo!’” remembered Bob Harlan, the retired Packers president who joined the team in 1971. “He had that kind of popularity among the players.”
Gentile, who died in 2000, served as a critical sounding board and guiding light for scores of players during the post-Lombardi generation of losing. He’s on a lengthy list of candidates presently under consideration by officials of the Packers Hall of Fame.
“’Domo’ was so close to the players and a very capable guy,” Harlan said. “I’m not sure Pepper isn’t the same way.
“Pepper’s just a very talented guy. Smart guy, very personable, great people skills. Ron (Wolf) was very fortunate to be able to find him and bring him in.”
Burruss, a product of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., received degrees from Purdue and Northwestern before spending 16 years as an assistant trainer for the New York Jets. Wolf, the Packers' general manager from 1991-01, had scouted for the Jets in 1990-91.
The NFL’s head trainer of the year award went to Gentile in 1992 and to Burruss in 2013. The Packers’ training staff was voted the NFL’s best in 2011.
“We’ve been very fortunate in that area,” Harlan said. “We’ve had very good people, surrounded by good doctors, too. It’s enormous to have guys like that. Players are just very comfortable with what Pepper tells them and what ‘Flea’ tells them.”
Engel’s nickname came courtesy of Frank Winters, the team’s starting center for most of an 11-year career that ended in 2002. Winters saw a striking resemblance between Engel and Michael Balzary, a.k.a. Flea, the renowned bass guitarist and co-founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the nickname stuck.
The beat goes on in Green Bay, too, from one effective head trainer to the next, and with zero interruption.