Vannessa Turner missed out on Christmas and her birthday — Dec. 27 — with her family, but she still considers herself fortunate.
She said she’s thankful that her family supports her through the commitment and travel it takes to be a student athletic trainer at a major collegiate athletics institution like Notre Dame, while she’s also preparing for Saturday’s Cotton Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal between Notre Dame and Clemson on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Turners take extra-curricular activities seriously. Erick Turner, a Lanier High School alum, played in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit with Georgia Tech’s football team on Dec. 26, so the family hosted Christmas festivities earlier in the week when Vanessa, a North Gwinnett grad, and her younger brother would be available.
“They’ve been super supportive, even when I was going back and forth, trying to decide if I wanted to go to medical school or being a nurse,” Vanessa Turner said. “They just always have my best interest.”
For now, Turner’s interest is to focus on women’s health as a nurse practitioner, a slight change in direction from her current role with the Notre Dame athletic training staff. But the duties of an athletic trainer are almost second nature to Turner at this point. The North Gwinnett High School graduate worked as an assistant to head athletic trainer Doug Warty.
Turner played a few seasons of junior varsity soccer and she saw Warty on the job and word reached her that the program was seeking out volunteers at North Gwinnett who were interested in medicine. She interned at Gwinnett Medical Center’s Suwanee Orthopedic office.
Once she arrived in South Bend, she sought out a way to be on the athletic training staff.
There’s a year-long observation process that comes with being a student athletic trainer at Notre Dame. If an application is accepted, the candidate goes through an observation period as a freshman. An athletic trainer’s duties can take up roughly 20 hours per week on top of the routine studying of a college student.
“It’s a lot of time spent with the people that you work with, so they want to make sure you fit with the values of the program and have the time commitment,” Turner said.
A selection process narrows candidates down to five or six students that work full time and a handful of alternates that act as fill-ins for practices or miscellaneous games when school gets hectic. Notre Dame’s training staff includes approximately 20 student trainers. The staff is responsible for all of the NCAA affiliated sports.
Turner is on track to graduate in May of 2020, making this her first year to travel with the Notre Dame football team to away games. The road warrior may have an opportunity to work close to home next year when Norte Dame plays the second half of its home-and-home series with Georgia at Sanford Stadium in Athens. She said she’ll have slightly more leeway to request her travel dates as a senior, and Notre Dame’s game with Georgia is prioritized on her list.
She was on the sideline at Notre Dame Stadium in 2017 when the two teams battled for College Football Playoff contention in an early-season matchup between the two teams. The game ended in a Georgia win,
“I wasn’t expecting to see that many Georgia fans,” she said. “It was heartbreaking, that one point, but it was cool that we were playing at our stadium and I got to be there at the game. … I’m definitely putting Athens on my list of places to go for sure.”
Notre Dame has enjoyed one of the program’s most successful seasons since its BCS National Championship berth in 2012. The Fighting Irish football team, an independent program with no conference affiliation, is the first non-Power Five team to reach the College football playoff in the fifth year of existence. Notre Dame, 12-0, is one of three undefeated teams in the College Football Playoff including its semifinals opponent, Clemson.
She rode the team charter to San Diego, Calif., for Notre Dame’s game against the Naval Academy. The Fighting Irish won that nationally-televised game on CBS in front of more than 63,000 fans and improved to 8-0.
Notre Dame was ranked No. 4 in the nation when the first College Football Playoff ratings were released the following Tuesday. The team still hasn’t fallen out of the top four since that day.
“Getting to see what it’s like and getting to do what (the team does) on a regular basis, and obviously winning out, has been cool,” she said.
Now a hectic week is coming to its climax as Turner said everyone on the Notre Dame football staff is anxious to be on the sideline to see how the team handles Clemson. The closer it gets to game day, she said, the more stressful the preparation gets. Her day starts early with tape and practices prep at the team hotel, followed by modalities — hot packs, swelling prevention and other kinds of preventative treatment. Then the training staff takes the team bus to AT&T Stadium and preps water for practice.
“We’re getting ready and everybody is excited about (the semifinal game),” she said. “The trainers are ready since we get to be on the sideline and get to see it all go down up close.”
The winner of Saturday’s Cotton Bowl will play the winner of Oklahoma and Alabama’s semifinal game. The National Championship will be at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.