A Life Remembered: MSU's Graham pioneered athletic training program, one of the first in the country

By Dan Greenwood

Aug 14, 2020

MANKATO — Thanks to Gordy Graham, Minnesota State University’s athletic training program is one of the oldest and most well-respected programs of its kind in the United States.

His role in securing accreditation by expanding the program’s academic curriculum, starting with a minor in 1969, and later a major in the 1980s, was instrumental in combining science and health care into a field that was virtually nonexistent before. It also paved the way for the creation of MSU’s athletic training master’s degree program.

“So many people think of athletic trainers as somebody there to ice and tape ankles,” said Pat Sexton, a former student and colleague of Graham. “Gordy taught us that it’s far more than that. It’s a health profession and you need to hold yourself to those standards.”

Graham, who retired as MSU’s athletic training director in 1994, died Aug. 7 at Ecumen Pathstone Living in Mankato. He was 85.

“If it wasn’t for Gordy, this program wouldn’t be here,” Sexton said.

Sexton, who minored in the athletic program at MSU from 1983-1985, said Graham played a significant role in leading him to pursue a master’s degree in the field.

When he was admitted to graduate school at the University of Arizona, his mentor there, a fellow pioneer in expanding the field, said that Graham’s word was all he needed to accept Sexton into the program.

“He said, ‘Gordy said you were good, that’s why you’re here,” Sexton said. “His word was gold. If Gordy gave you a thumbs up on a recommendation for someone, that meant everything. The reputation that Gordy’s program had meant a whole lot.”

Sexton said that Graham brought a wealth of experience to his teaching; he was head athletic trainer for the Canadian National Team during the 1967 Pan American Games and on the athletic training staff for the 1977 World University Games.

In later years, he was inducted into the National and Minnesota Athletic Trainer’s Association Hall of Fame.

Now as a professor of MSU’s athletic training program, Sexton said his own teaching style is inspired from his days as a student of Graham’s, who encouraged his athletic training students to watch the players rather than the ball, so they were prepared to adequately treat an injury.

“Many times, the athlete or patient can’t tell you exactly what happened because all they know is they felt pain; or if it was a concussion, they might not even know that,” Sexton said. “He always wanted us to pay attention and make sure you knew that you weren’t there as a fan. You’re there because if you see an injury occur, you have a better idea right away.”

Retired physical therapist Mark Miller first connected with Graham when Miller was a teenager attending the very first Great Lakes Athletic Trainers Association meeting in 1968 in his home state of Ohio. At a the association’s district meeting in 1989, Miller said Graham helped him make the decision to take a job in Mankato at the Orthopaedic and Fracture Clinic.

In 1990, Graham connected students with Miller to shadow him at the OFC, learning firsthand from the perspective of a physical therapist beyond the training room. It was a partnership Graham helped spearhead over 50 years ago, bridging the health care field with athletic trainers.

“They would come and spend some time under me so they could get out and see other things that an athletic trainer could do,” Miller said. “It’s now required that athletic training students spend time in other areas of medicine, but we did this long before it was mandatory or part of the curriculum.”

But for Miller, as well as countless others, Graham was more than a colleague; he was genuinely concerned about the well-being of the people around him.

Kent Kalm, who took over as athletic training director following Graham’s retirement, echoed that sentiment.

“He was an outstanding mentor, and he was always concerned about his students and how well they were doing,” Kalm said. “We were really part of his family, especially during the days when the program was small. We’d frequently visit the Graham house. He took us on as his own kids, along with his four others.”

Graham’s role in founding and later expanding the program at MSU received national recognition and fostered relationships with professional teams, creating summer internship opportunities for students to treat professional football players on the field.

“We were one of the first schools that had our students going out to spend summer internships with professional football teams,” Kalm said. “Because of that, several of our graduates went on to become assistants with the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings. It was a good link that led to some pretty nice jobs.”

Sexton said that after he died, people from all over the country reached out to share the wide impact Graham had had on them as students or colleagues in the athletic training field.

“When you start looking at the impact and reach that Gordy had with all the care he provided to student athletes and all of the students that he educated, and all of the patients that they took care of and the students that they educated, you start to see the exponential impact that he had.”