Damon Mitchell is entering his sixth season as the Chargers’ head athletic trainer and 24th season overall with the organization.
Legendary linebacker Junior Seau made his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl with the Chargers when Mitchell started as a seasonal intern in 1999.
“I was just talking to friends, remembering,” Mitchell said. “It’s really cool to say that, just to know that, he and I were friends. It’s unbelievable.”
Mitchell has developed several friendships with the players he’s cared for in the past two decades, including with Chargers greats Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson. But he likely wouldn’t have crossed paths with them if Morgan State University had a wrestling team.
When Mitchell found out the wrestling team was dropped, the university’s athletic trainer offered him an opportunity to work with him, prompting the beginning of his new career. Now Mitchell is doing the same by offering opportunities and helping increase diversity in the field, so medical students don’t have to stumble into sports medicine.
The Chargers are one of eight teams participating in the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative, a new project that works with the four medical schools within the historically Black College Universities – Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Howard University College of Medicine , Morehouse School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College – with the purpose of increasing diversity and interest in primary care sports medicine and/or orthopedic surgery.
Sixteen HBCU medical students, two per team, will shadow athletic trainers and team doctors for one-month clinical rotations during the first two months of the 2022 regular season. Along with the Chargers, the Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Washington Commanders are participants of the first-year program.
“During their NFL club settings,” students will observe and participate in rotation in the care of sports medicine patients in NFL club settings,” read the news release describing the position. Students will work directly with and under the supervision of the orthopedic team physicians, primary care team physicians and athletic trainers to gain basic medical knowledge and exposure to patient care in sports medicine. Additionally, students will become familiar with return-to-play guidelines and on-field treatment considerations for NFL players.
“Students may also have the opportunity to attend home games and be present on the sideline for observation. By the end of the rotation, students will understand the basic elements of all faces of care provided to NFL players from an orthopedic, primary care sports medicine and athletic training perspective.”
Mitchell said he’s one of eight minors who are head athletic trainers in the NFL. He wants to help increase those numbers by getting more fellow HBCU graduates involved in athletic training and sports medicine.
According to the NFL Physicians Society, 86 percent of its membership identifies as white, eight percent identify as Asian, five percent identify as Black and one percent identify as Latino. According to the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society, 65 percent of its membership identifies as white, 23 percent identify as Black, eight percent identify as Latino and four percent identify as Asian.
“This can be a pretty good experience, and it may open up their eyes to a different side of medicine that they might not have been thinking about,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell quickly enjoyed the new career he stumbled upon and worked his way up after his first seasonal internship with the Philadelphia Eagles. He impressed James Collins, the then-head athletic trainer for the Eagles, and was asked by Collins to join him with the Chargers in 1999. Collins is currently the Chargers’ director of football and medical services. Mitchell was hired by the Chargers after he graduated from Morgan State and after passing his board certification exam in 2001.
“I excelled at it,” said Mitchell, who grew up in New Jersey and began wrestling at age 8. “I didn’t see it as work. I moved up and did administrative work. The grunt work on the field came later. I learned the business side and got more athletic training, speaking to doctors more.”
When Mitchell started, master’s degrees in athletic training weren’t a requirement. He got his bachelor’s degree in health education, met the right people and gained valuable experience as he developed friendships with future NFL Hall-of-Famers. Mitchell’s brother, Erik, was also an intern with the Chargers before becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
Mitchell wants to help those who are interested and to lead them in the right direction.
“I thought I was going to be a high school PE teacher,” Mitchell said. “I thought I was going to live the rest of my life in South Jersey. It changed because James Collins gave me a call.”