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BENNER: Trainer hall of famer makes his mark across many sports

June 29, 2013

Ralph Reiff donned a green jacket recently and, no, he didn’t win the Masters.

But as a master of his craft—athletic training—Reiff stands at the top of the class. Thus, he was inducted on June 26 into the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame during NATA’s annual gathering in Las Vegas.

A green jacket is part of the ceremony. Even better for Reiff is that the man who slipped the coveted emerald coat onto his shoulders was also the man upon whose shoulders Reiff stood in the profession: former longtime Indiana Pacers trainer David Craig.

“It all starts with David Craig,” Reiff said. Craig—and a little serendipity.

Reiff, a native of Warsaw, was a sophomore football player (a kicker, he still holds the school record for points) at Indiana Central College (now UIndy) back in 1976. The Pacers were holding training camp there.

Legendary Indiana Central basketball coach Angus Nicoson introduced Reiff to Craig. Reiff expressed an interest in a career in athletic training.

“David took me in, and it became mentor and [protégé] from that point on,” Reiff recalled. “And I can’t imagine any person being able to learn more from another.”

There was a practical issue, too. Reiff had to engage in a course of study in athletic training and, at the time, Indiana Central didn’t have one. So it created one for him. In time, he earned his degree, passed the national exam, then embarked on 1,800 hours of clinical training with, of course, David Craig and the Pacers.

Two years later, Reiff had his license and was working on his master’s degree at Miami of Ohio and serving as an assistant trainer. Butler University came to play a baseball doubleheader in Oxford. The Butler trainer, Mert Prophet, encountered Reiff in the Miami dugout. Longtime Butler equipment man Charlie McElfresh had died earlier in the spring and Prophet needed to take over those duties, so, the Bulldogs needed a trainer.

Reiff went to interview with Butler Athletic Director Bill Sylvester but didn’t really have to: Sylvester told Reiff that David Craig—who else?—already had given him such a glowing recommendation that the job was his if he wanted it.

Thus, a Greyhound became a Bulldog. Reiff stayed at Butler the next 18 years until an idea came along to develop an all-encompassing sports performance center. St. Vincent Health liked the idea. Reiff ran with it. Now Reiff serves as executive director of the St. Vincent Sports Performance Center, which works with 500 professional and Olympic-level athletes as well as 2,000 middle- and high-school athletes.

Its 62 athletic trainers provide training for schools throughout central Indiana. Besides the “performance” aspect—strength, conditioning, flexibility, etc.—the center offers sports nutrition and sports psychology.

Reiff became nationally known and served as athlete health care manager for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And there is hardly an event that comes through Indianapolis that doesn’t include Reiff’s respected and astute presence.

The Hall of Fame nod is well-earned.

“It’s been emotional ever since I found out in February, but actually being inducted is overwhelming,” he said. “At some point, you feel not worthy even though everyone keeps telling you that you are.”

Reiff gives credit to dozens of people who helped him along the way including, of course, his wife of 31 years, Brenda, who came from an athletic background herself: She’s the daughter of former longtime Arsenal Technical High School Athletic Director Howard Catt, who also was a trainer.

But then, it all comes back to Craig.

“I’ve just tried to spend my life following that guy’s lead,” Reiff said, adding that the irony is Craig is not yet in the Hall of Fame.

“But he should be, and his time is coming.”

In the meantime, perhaps they can each share a sleeve of that green jacket.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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