Herbert Waldrop was in his second year of playing football at Auburn when an accident at a summer construction job caused him to lose an eye. Waldrop returned to Auburn in the fall of 1957, but could no longer play football.
Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan told Waldrop his weakened depth perception and peripheral vision made football too dangerous, but he would still honor Waldrop’s football scholarship.
“I was devastated when I first heard the news,” said Waldrop, not realizing he was about to become friends with one of the most influential people in what we know as sports medicine and athletic training today.
Waldrop was assigned by Jordan to work as a student trainer and then as assistant trainer with Milford Kenneth “Kenny” Howard ’48. Auburn’s head athletic trainer for 28 years, Howard made a monumental impact on sports medicine and has become an inspiration for all aspiring athletic trainers.
“Kenny became a father figure, my mentor, my boss, and most important, my very close friend,” said Waldrop. “He and his wife took me and my wife under their wings.”
Waldrop and Howard are now in the Alabama Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame (AATA).
These days, Howard is an early-morning fixture for breakfast at Chappy’s Deli, along with other AU legends like his friend David Housel ’69, former athletics director. But ask anyone about the early precursors to today’s high-tech sports training regimens, and Howard’s name always comes up.
“Kenny Howard and Jack Hughston developed a relationship that basically set the building blocks today for where we are in sports medicine,” said John “Doc” Anderson ’65, who ran cross-country for Auburn at the time while Howard was head athletic trainer. Anderson is a head coach and head athletic trainer in the Troy University Hall of Fame. “Dr. Hughston had tremendous respect for the athletic trainer. And out of that, surgical procedures and rehabilitation improved. I would say Auburn is one of the schools that’s a cradle of sports medicine today.”
Howard also was one of the founding fathers of the National Athletic Trainers Association, something he couldn’t have foreseen when he began as a student athletic trainer in 1945.
“There was no organization for trainers at all before the NATA,” said Howard. “There was not much healthcare for athletes. It was formed primarily for educational purposes.”
“I didn’t know what a ‘trainer’ was when I was hired,” he said. “I was looking for a job to help my parents out with tuition payment. At the time the Kappa Sig fraternity rushed me and the guy in that fraternity who was the current student trainer at that time was about to graduate. I told him I couldn’t afford a fraternity, so he introduced me to Coach [Wilbur] Hutsell. And I worked my entire time at school as the student trainer.”
A few months before graduating in 1948, Howard was offered the position of head athletic trainer. He said he even dropped some classes and was only taking five credit hours.
“I was scared to death,” Howard said. “Of course I couldn’t let anybody know. However, I was also extremely proud of the job.”
Howard was also the first Auburn athletic trainer to attend the Olympics, working with the U.S. track team in Helsinki in 1952 and the U.S. swimming team in Montreal in 1976.
This guy is everything Auburn stands for.
Sports medicine and athletic training have come a long way thanks to Howard. But he always makes sure to thank his colleague and good friend, the late Dr. Jack Hughston ’38, Auburn’s first orthopedic surgeon for athletics.
“He was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Howard said. “He asked Coach Jordan if he could be the team orthopedist and that’s how we met.”
Hughston allowed Howard to watch his surgeries, which led to one of the first partnerships of an athletic trainer and an orthopedic surgeon in the country. They performed clinics at the annual meetings of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA). And when they weren’t teaching, they were learning.
It also gave Howard the opportunity to present one of his innovations to sports medicine called the Kenny Howard Sling. “It was used to treat a separated shoulder,” he said. “Before this, the only thing we could do was loop adhesive tape around the shoulder, but after time the skin would rot from the tape.”
Howard added that the sling is no longer used to repair separated shoulders, but does hold a broken collarbone in place.
Howard also tagged along with Hughston at annual meetings of the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine (AOSSM).
“They would have meetings called ‘medical aspects of the knee,’ ” he said. “Someone would present a paper in the room of doctors and afterwards there would be a critique. They would get into the damnedest arguments you have ever seen. But they learned and so did I.”
The education Howard gained throughout the years was so helpful that Waldrop and Chad Abrams ’92, director of outreach at Rehabworks, an outpatient rehabilitation service as part of East Alabama Medical Center, both said community members would go see Howard before going to the doctor.
Howard, Anderson and Waldrop all agreed that one of the greatest advancements from the evolution of sports medicine and athletic training is the education.
“The technology has improved a lot but the education promotes the technology,” Howard said. “Because of the rule changes as well with targeting and hitting lower in football, for example. The protection of the athlete has improved greatly.”
Now, at age 90, Howard spends most of his time enjoying retirement, but also still provides wisdom through the Kenny Howard Assistantship, a graduate program that allows students to travel to various East Alabama high schools to get on-the-field experience at practices and games.
“You could say Southern gentleman, but that sounds kind of trite,” said Anderson. “This guy is everything Auburn stands for.”