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Iso happy to leave pro game to follow dream at OSU

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

For Ariko Iso, a stint with one of the NFL’s perennial powerhouses may have only been a path to achieve her ultimate goal.

Iso, who worked for the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers as an assistant athletic trainer for the past nine seasons, became head trainer for the Oregon State University football program over the summer.

She had no hesitation whatsoever to apply for the vacancy when the school’s athletic director, Bob De Carolis, phoned her in mid-May.

“While there are nearly 200 schools in the NCAA, you don’t really have a chance to be a head trainer,” Iso told The Japan Times in a recent telephone interview from Oregon. “So when I received the call, I couldn’t believe it.”

Iso, a graduate of OSU, joked that her father back in Tokyo was skeptical about her decision, perhaps because the transfer from a professional club to a college didn’t seem like a promotion to him.

But not only she was able to become head trainer, returning to her alma mater to work was also something she had dreamed of since she left there as a student. For her, it was clearly worth it.

“I’ve been working since I graduated in ’93 from Oregon State University,” said the 40-year-old, who had worked as the head football trainer of Portland State University in the Football Championship Subdivision before heading to Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to become an athletic trainer at such a big school like Oregon State. That was my dream that I had in mind when I graduated.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to experience a lot of things, but I’m now back where I originally wanted to work, so certainly I want to enjoy every moment here.”

But her departure from the Steelers, with whom she made three Super Bowl trips (two of them won), wasn’t easy.

Yet, fortunately or otherwise, because there weren’t any players around the facilities due to the NFL lockout, Iso didn’t have to go through the sorrow of parting with them.

“It wasn’t easy for me to say goodbye to the Steelers staff,” said Iso, who, as the first full-time female athletic trainer in the NFL, was something of a celebrity. “But had the players been around, it would’ve been much more difficult.”

John Norwig, the Steelers’ head trainer under whom Iso had worked for all those years, said in an email that he would certainly miss her, giving her the utmost praise as a co-worker and person.

“Ariko was an integral part of the Steelers sports medicine staff for nine years,” Norwig said. “She took a great deal of pride in providing quality care to the athletes. She is a tireless worker, who shows compassion and dedication in taking care of the injured athletes. She did not have an enemy in the organization. She was respected by all.

“She is a loyal friend. I will miss her at work, but I know she has a big challenge with her own program at Oregon State.”

As Norwig pointed out, the responsibility as head trainer will be drastically different from that of an assistant.

Iso said that aside from taking care of the players’ injuries and rehabs, she is now required to constantly communicate with the coaches, team doctors, staff and athletic director, while also attending team meetings every day.

But she didn’t sound overwhelmed by her new duties. Instead, she seems to be enjoying the fresh challenges.

“My responsibility is certainly big,” said Iso, a Tokyo native. “But it’s very challenging and a worthy job for me.”

Iso said that she is still learning about the school and football program, and has not been able to feel like she has made a contribution yet. She would like to give the best service and medical care possible to the program sooner than later.

Over 18 years of experience as an athletic trainer, it looks like Iso has achieved a career goal by taking the OSU position. But what is her next destination? A return to the NFL, this time as a head trainer? Or a return to her native Japan to convey what she has learned in America?

Asked the above, Iso replied that she has not thought over anything yet.

“Well, I haven’t been able to afford to think about it yet,” she said. “Right now, I’m only thinking of making the OSU program better and have no idea what I’ll do beyond that.”

After all, for the “tireless worker” Iso, the stint at OSU may lead up a different path.