Training Day: Pacific Alumna Works On The Sidelines With 49ers
For the San Francisco 49ers football team, the 2022-2023 season ended a game too early. But the players and staff are determined to play for a championship again this year, and Oanh Ngo MSAT ’22 will be part of the effort.
Ngo was on a one-year contract athletic trainer for the team last season, and the 49ers have invited her to continue this season. San Francisco is the first stop on what she hopes will be a career as an athletic trainer in major league sports.
“It’s a bonus to have a team that’s winning. It’s a bonus to go to the NFC Championship,” she said. “But at the end of the day, this is what we do, we’re passionate about this. It’s a job for us. You’ve just got to stay humble about it.”
(Ngo is one of two recent Pacific University athletic training graduates to get jobs in the National Football League. Trevor Hunt MSAT ’21 is working for the Las Vegas Raiders.)
Ngo fell in love with being an athletic trainer at the University of Oregon, where she was an undergraduate who thought she would steer toward a career in physical therapy. She also had the misfortune of tearing her anterior cruciate ligament while playing intramural basketball, so she has firsthand experience in returning from a serious injury. The thing that motivates her is helping elite athletes rebound from setbacks to return to their previous level of performance.
“That’s huge,” she said.
After graduating from the University of Oregon, she enrolled in Pacific University’s Master of Science in Athletic Training program, where she found Pacific’s professors “really care about us.” She was in a cohort with four professors and eight students.
“That teacher-to-student ratio was just great,” she said. “We were all allowed one-on-one time.” The professors took the time to go over material before exams, stay later when needed, and ensure the students knew their material. At Pacific’s cadaver lab, each person was able to work on a single cadaver. “That was an amazing experience.”
Professors emailed frequently to alert students about external opportunities. “They would say ‘Hey, if you’re free, here's some experience for you. Go volunteer for the … Special Olympics. Or go volunteer for the marathon.’ They would push us out of our comfort zone a little bit.”
Between her first and second years at Pacific, she landed a five-week summer training camp internship with the 49ers. “It was cool,” she said. “It was really a shot in the dark.”
When summer camp ended and she came back to Pacific, she stayed in touch with the 49ers, texting and calling periodically. She applied for the seasonal internship and was offered a second year for the 2023-24 season.
While she started with the 49ers, she was nervous, like any worker starting a new job, but the players and staff were friendly and open, and within a couple of days, she felt comfortable. She went about her tasks with confidence, and she also asked questions. The players also asked her a lot of questions.
“They’re very curious about interns,” Ngo said. “But they’re super nice. They’re super open about their lives. I think I’ve built a pretty good relationship with the players, so we can just joke around, and ask personal questions as well.”
Ngo’s group of players is on the defensive side, specifically the linemen. On game days, she stayed on the sidelines, lending assistance where needed. She would tape ankles, getting equipment to the right place, and even helping players keep their emotions under control. It’s a matter of responding to the need of the moment.
“We’re always looking for a player acting differently,” she said. “If someone is coming off and grabbing their ankle, that’s kind of when we’re like ‘Hey, everything OK?’ And after that, we’ll assess the situation.” The head athletic trainer, the team doctors all may be involved before deciding the next step, whether it means sending a player back to the training room for treatment, or patting him on the back and walking away.
She said it’s no longer unusual to be a woman on the sidelines in the National Football League, as it might have been 20 years ago. But she acknowledged that in the male-dominated sport of football, women can be overlooked.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we can’t relate to, male vs. female,” she said. But in 49ers operation, one of the permanent athletic trainers is a woman, and she helped to make sure the younger women were integrated into the staff.
“She was like, ‘Hey, if there’s anything you guys need, I’m an advocate for you. It’s hard to be in this profession. I know,’” Ngo said. “I understand that you’re a female, but it’s OK. You did something right to get where you are.’”