AMHERST, Mass. — Jennifer Brodeur has worked with professional athletes (with the Connecticut Sun and the now-defunct New England Blizzard). She's worked in college and high school sports. She's worked in clinics.
But Brodeur — who has risen at 4:30 each morning for the past three weeks to get to the training room at UMass before football practice — has found what she truly loves to do.
For the past four years, she has been the head football trainer at UMass, which will play in its first Division I-A game against UConn on Thursday at Rentschler Field.
Brodeur, 43, is one of a handful of female trainers in the country who work in Div. I-A football, including Ariko Iso, who was the first female trainer in the NFL with the Steelers and now works with the football team at Oregon State.
There have been other women in the past, but it's a demanding job that requires a lot of time and sacrifice. It's also been difficult for women to break into the male-dominated world of football.
"It's an incredibly challenging job for anyone, but in particular for a female because of the gender barrier," said John Rock, the associate athletic director for sports medicine at Providence College, for whom Brodeur worked from 2001-06. "In football, traditionally, it's been an old boys club."
"I don't want to 'gender-base' this statement, but it's a difficult profession for anyone, between the time commitment, the weekends and the travel. It's been difficult to be a husband and a father, for me. It's difficult to be a wife and a mother, especially at the Division I level."
But the number of women in the profession is growing. In 2008, 48 percent of National Athletic Trainers Association members were women, and Brodeur said that the most recent numbers she has heard were that 52 percent of all athletic trainers are women. Still, when she went to a recent football athletic trainers' conference, she was one of only three women among 80 attendees.
"I don't think she has ever looked as herself as much of a pioneer as she is at that level," said Rock, who is in his 25th year at Providence. "She's never looked at it as, 'Wow, I'm one of a few.' It's more like, 'Football is the sport I work, that's my responsibility.'"
She loves her job, "most days," she said, despite the fact that she will have only one day off — Sunday, for her aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary — between the first week of August and Thanksgiving.
"We do everything from arts and crafts — the other day we made a cast that we could take on and off of a kid while he's playing and not playing — from that, to dealing with broken bones," said Brodeur, who lives in Northampton, Mass. "Most of the time when you're done doing what you're doing, someone feels better. It's a nice feeling. It's pretty satisfying to come to work most days."
The other days?
"Then I look at my mug," she said, laughing.
Brodeur played field hockey, softball and ran track in high school in Medfield, Mass. and Columbus, Ohio (her family moved in her junior year). After spending time rehabilitating a knee injury in high school, she thought about becoming an orthopedic surgeon but decided she didn't want to deal with the pressure of being a doctor.
Athletic training was the next best thing.
"You have your occasional — like the other day, a pro scout came and he goes, 'Oh, you must be new here,' and I'm like, 'No, I've been here [at UMass] for seven years,'" she said. "He said, 'Oh. How do the guys handle that?' I'm like, 'They're fine.'"
"An ankle sprain's an ankle sprain, it doesn't matter who it's happening on. My head coach has been phenomenal."
And the players, she said, are respectful and polite. She draws the line at them calling her the "Team Mom," however.
"Team 'Cool Older Sister,' I'm OK with," she said. "'Team Cool Aunt,' I'm all right with."
With the bump up to I-A, there are more players for Brodeur to deal with and more time spent in the training room during the offseason.
"More people, more intensity," she said. "For the first time ever, the whole team stayed this summer. There's more time involved. I'm up every morning at 4:30, here at 5:30. Practice is at 9. Tomorrow, we're off, but I'm doing two sets of treatments. It's a lot of hours. It's not for everybody."
"But I love this. I've done everything now, high school, college, clinic, professional — and college is definitely where I belong."