When he went to Mad River Junior High School, he began to draw a realistic bead on his sports future.
“I was too small to play football, too short to play basketball and I couldn’t hit a curveball,” Paul Sparling said.
He wasn’t a sprinter either, but he still wanted to be involved in sports and that’s when Odell Pursifull, the track coach and physical education teacher at Mad River, threw him the pitch he’d eventually hit out of the park.
He suggested being an athletic trainer, but Sparling had no clue what that entailed.
For a quick tutorial, Pursifull invested $10 to get a home correspondence course on athletic training from Cramer Products and Sparling devoured the lessons – he still has his notebooks from those days – and soon everyone was calling him “Doc.”
Once Sparling got to Stebbins High, athletic director Jim Murray introduced him to his new quarters.
“Back then, Stebbins, like most schools, didn’t have an athletic trainer,” Sparling said Friday afternoon. “(Murray) took me to a room that said ‘Training Room,’ but it just had a whirlpool, a table, a medicine chest and a sink. That’s it.
“He said: ‘It’s yours…Have at it!’ And then he gave me the key to the room.”
As he recalled that exchange, Sparling started to laugh:
“He probably didn’t know – and I never told him – that key actually opened the outside of the athletic department building, too.”
In truth that key open a lot of doors for Sparling.
By the time he graduated from Stebbins in 1979, he had earned nine varsity letters for his trainer duties with several sports.
“Back when I was a senior, I remember one day when Don Brown (later a Dayton sportscaster) was a junior on the baseball team and he was sitting in the whirlpool,” Sparling said. “He asked me what I was going to be one day and I said, ‘My dream is to be the head athletic trainer of the Cincinnati Bengals.’
“But I didn’t have any idea how I was going to get to do it.”
Rather than go to Wright State as his siblings had, he went to Wilmington College, where the school’s trainer, Roger Tewksbury, was developing an athletic training program for students.
That’s also where the Bengals used to hold their training camp each summer and he ended up meeting Marv Pollins, the team’s trainer, who took him under his wing.
Sparling started out as the team’s “laundry boy,” -- washing socks and jocks, restringing shoulder pads, and tightening cleats – and soon was promoted.
By 1985, he became Pollins’ full-time assistant. And when Pollins retired in 1992, Mike Brown hired Sparling as the Bengals head athletic trainer.
“I was 32 and at the time I was the youngest head trainer in the NFL,” he said.
Now 63 – after 30 seasons as the Bengals head trainer, 845 NFL games, being named the NFL trainer of the year in 2020, induction into the Wilmington Hall of Fame and, nine days ago, the Ohio Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame – he is semi-retired. When he stepped down two months ago, he had the second longest tenure among current trainers in the NFL.
Although he’ll still be quite involved with the team – as the athletic training emeritus and a medical administrative consultant – this week he’ll be back in the Miami Valley for good times and sad.
His beloved 95-year-old mother, Patti, died last week and Thursday he’ll give her eulogy, just as he did six years ago for his dad, Dr. Kenneth Sparling, an optometrist who flew 70 missions in a B-25 over Italy and southern France in World War II and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.
Later on Thursday, he’ll deliver the commencement address at the Stebbins High graduation ceremony at the Nutter Center.
In between, he’ll meet with the 77-year-old Pursifull, who, until a few days ago, he said he hadn’t spoken to in “almost 50 years.”
“He planted the seed of athletic training in me and I always wanted to come back and thank him,” Sparling said. “I called him last week and he was in tears thanking me for calling.
“I said, ‘If anybody should be crying, it’s me, for what you did for me.’”
Sparling also has extended helping hand to others, especially with two signature initiatives he launched with the Bengals.
With owner Mike Brown’s blessing, he started the Bengals annual student trainer internship program that draws undergrads from area colleges. Today, well over 100 students have taken part in it.
And after realizing there was a ‘’limited supply of minorities” in the business, he began an annual minority fellowship for licensed, certified trainers.
“I think it’s important for diversity in the training room,” he said. “After all that’s the population we most work with in there.”
The Bengals take candidates from across the nation and pay them a salary for a year.
The two programs benefit the Bengals – they get extra hands to tend to the team – while also broadening the athletic training field itself.
One of the Las Vegas Raiders assistant trainers was part of the fellowship program and a former Tennessee Titans trainer was too. Other participants, he said, have ended up in Arena and college football and some have become doctors and surgeons.
“That’s something that brings me pride and joy, knowing we played a small role in expanding the opportunities, as well as expanding athletic training field,” Sparling said.
When he was invited to speak at Stebbins commencement – an invite he said that left him “stunned” and “thrilled” – he said he was asked to tell “how I got to where I am.”
Thinking about that journey Friday, he summed it up perfectly:
“I’d say I’ve come full circle.”
‘The cab was leaning to one side’
Sparling’s career began in the pioneering days of sports medicine, a time when the macho mindset sometimes muscled in on medicine.
In the early ‘80s, Bengals head coach Forrest Gregg was known to chase players of the training room, telling them to get their butts back on the practice field.
Nearly a dozen years before the NFL came up with concussion protocols, the Bengals – at Sparling’s prompting – were using baseline tests to diagnose concussions. He also pushed to have local specialists work with players.
While Sparling already was involved with the Bengals in the late 1970s when standout quarterback Ken Anderson broke his hand in training camp, one of the most high-profile situations came late in the 2020 season when stellar rookie quarterback Joe Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in a game against Washington.
Amidst all the dire predictions, Sparling said he was confident Burrow as going to make it back, especially when he saw his commitment to rehab:
“You couldn’t have a better patient. He made it easy. Talk about focus. You won’t find a guy who was more dedicated, committed and disciplined.”
At the other end of the spectrum was the massive, 6-foot-6 offensive lineman the Bengals drafted out of East Carolina in the sixth round of the 1993 draft.
He did play in 13 games as a rookie, but he dealt with knee problems and had a persistent weight problem.
“One of our plans to help him with that was hiring one of our athletic training students to actually live with him to kind of help cook meals and give him some guidance,” Sparling said.
“And the guy would go out every night to jog, but he kept gaining weight. Finally, I told my student: ‘I want you to follow him and see where he’s jogging to.’
“Turns out the guy was jogging to Burger King every night!
“After that first season he got married and we gave him 21 days off for his honeymoon. Before he left we weighed him and he was 357 pounds. When he came back, we put him on the scales again and he was 411!
“In 21 days, he had put on 54 pounds!”
Although released by the Bengals before the following season, the team brought him back late in the year for a tryout.
“I remember standing in the training room, looking out the window and seeing his cab coming down Evans toward old Spinney Field,” Sparling said.
“And the cab was leaning to one side!
“I called up to Mike (Brown) and said, “I don’t think this is going to work!’
“And it didn’t.
“The guy ended up eating himself right out of football.”
‘It’s been a family affair’
Sparling has a close relationship with Brown. They have worked together for decades and have bond built on trust and respect.
“I trust Paul Sparling, implicitly,” Brown told Geoff Hobson, the senior writer for Bengals.com.
Sparling feels the same about the Bengals owner.
“Words cannot describe what he means to me and how much he has done for me,” Sparling said.
“He made me a head athletic trainer in the NFL when I was just 32. He was patient with me and helped me learn what I needed to learn.”
Through it all he said Brown stressed he wanted him to tell him exactly what he thought and not “candy coat it.”
And their connection extends beyond the confines of football.
“When my father passed away, Mike, Troy and Katie all came to the service,” Sparling said.
“Mike came to my wedding when I married my wife Karen during the bye week in 1999.”
Four years later Sparling said Karen brought up the idea of foreign adoptions and he thought it was “a great idea.”
He already had an 11-year-old daughter Ashley from his first marriage and he also knew about international adoptions. His parents adopted two children from Korea when he was growing up.
When he and Karen were invited to Russia to meet the children, the trip happened to be set up for a Bengals bye week:
“I went to Mike and said, ‘I can wait until the end of the season if you like,’ but he didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘Paul, those little kids need you. Go!?’”
Today the little girl is 21-year-old Natalie who is going into her senior year at Wilmington in sports management. He said she has done a number of internships with the Bengals and this weekend he was taking her to Orlando to begin an internship with Disney.
And his son Kenneth is working full time and over the years did a number of training camps with his dad.
Oldest daughter Ashley, now 30, used to go to training camps at Spinney Field and had a couple of Bengals internships, as well.
“It’s been a family affair,” Sparling said . “It’s been wonderful.”
In April, Matt Summers – who worked at the University of Louisville the past four years – was hired as the new Bengals trainer.
Sparling said since the Bengals are self-insured – the only NFL team that is – all the medical bills come to the training room and that creates enormous paperwork. He’ll especially handle that end of the job as Summers tends to the other aspects.
“I’ll try to be a resource for him and share whatever knowledge I learned from all these years in the league,” he said.
He hopes to share some of that Thursday evening at the Nutter Center, as well.
He’ll talk about enjoying what you do and being kind to people and not living life tethered to GPS.
“Sometimes that turn GPS doesn’t want you to take can bring rewarding experiences, things that you never expected to see or experience in your life. Taking the back roads are sometimes the best roads.”
And sometimes the only roads are those you pave yourself.
For Paul Sparling it began with a $10 home correspondence course and ended up one of the longest running and most respected athletic training careers in the NFL.
All it took was a key that opened more doors than anyone – including himself – ever imagined.
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