Even the most diehard LSU football fan might not have heard of her, but the players who take the field each Saturday in the fall know her name. Shelly Mullenix?
“Shelly’s like my mom,” says Jai Eugene, a junior cornerback from St. Rose.
“Shelly’s the first person I talk to about anything. She’s like a mom to me in Baton Rouge. Anything I want to talk to her about I can talk to her. She’s going to give me straightforward answers,” Eugene says.
More valuable even than her wise/blunt/valuable counsel, though, are her skills as an athletic trainer for the LSU football team. “She’s one of the best trainers in the world,” Eugene says.
She’s the woman you’ve seen countless times during an LSU game, kneeling on the field attending to a wounded Tiger. She was there even during the 2000 season, when she was late in her pregnancy with twins Maggie and Briana, who are now third-graders.
“She was one of the first female trainers in the Southeastern Conference and certainly one of the first to work football,” says her boss, LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci, who was hired away from Florida State in 1996 by then-LSU coach Gerry DiNardo.
Not coincidentally, Marucci, who also took with him from FSU trainer Andy Barker, a few months later got Mullenix to join them in Baton Rouge.
“She added a different dynamic … one most of the programs have gone to,” Marucci says. “So she’s basically one of the trailblazers.
“She brings some different things to the table as a female. She looks at things differently, and players feel more comfortable talking to her. It really helps us out.”
Mullenix is responsible for everything from helping football players eat right, to nurturing their mental health, to serving as a liaison for the NCAA’s drug-testing program. She’s even got the title Director of Wellness for the entire Athletic Department.
Obviously trust plays a big part in her success.
“We laugh about it around here. The guys will come to me with issues that no sane male would come to a female for,” Mullenix says. “The only thing we can gather is they see me as a mom/girlfriend/trainer. There’s probably a mixture of all that going on.”
“But I deal with so many issues with them, they’d be stupid not to trust me.”
The head coach certainly does. Mullenix is the one who might tell Les Miles to back off, that a player needs some love, not getting his butt kicked.
“She’s tremendously professional in any number of areas and offers a very qualified opinion,” Miles says.
Miles says Mullenix gives his players honest advice and doesn’t baby them or allow them to baby themselves.
“She’s somebody they can trust, who’s very honest, who will give them an opinion that will benefit them.”
That’s a big help, too, for LSU team orthopedist Brent Bankston, a skilled surgeon who has repaired some of the most severe internal Tiger wounds. “She gets to know who they are and what things affect their lives off the field,” Bankston says. “Shelly gets interested and involved, and because she understands, she can help them get through the process of being a Division I athlete. She knows what they need, just like a mom would.”
Mullenix grew up in North Miami Beach and made the cheerleading squad at North Miami Beach Senior High School. “I was a cheerleader converted into an athletic trainer,” she says. The school’s athletic trainer convinced her to give up firing up fans for icing and taping up the athletes. “He kept saying it and I fell for it, finally.”
She enrolled at Florida State in 1987 and stayed for nine years, earning her master’s degree and then landing her first job working with the Seminoles volleyball team. In 1993 she got to work for two weeks with the football team in the preseason, and FSU went on to win the national championship.
Mullenix, who turns 40 this football season, has learned a lot through trial and error and is now the one who gets requests from young women around the country hoping to become athletic trainers themselves. Mullenix got a lot of her advice from Sally Nogle, who had been at Michigan State with Nick Saban. Saban had Mullenix call Nogle, and “we developed a relationship. And she’s got kids, as well.”
Ah, the kids.
People use the word “juggle,” but Mullenix says it’s not that hard to do all she does. “I keep a very tight schedule, and I’m very organized. It’s more a juggle of my conscience. It’s the guilt moms have.”
Says Marruci, “You know that’s been the death of a lot of female athletic trainers, but she knows how to manage that, and she knows how to do it—plan the day and still be a mom and a wife.”
Mullenix gets plenty of help and understanding not only from Marucci and Barker but from her husband Matt and her mother Barbara, who lives in Baton Rouge,
“Jack’s a family guy and he understands. I told him I want to take my kids to school and cook them dinner at night. And there has not been a day, with the exception of travel, that I have not had food on the table for my kids and Matt.”
Some of that travel included working three off- and pre-seasons for the Miami Dolphins under Saban, who offered her a permanent a job with the NFL team. Mullenix declined. She had no desire to move back to Miami. But she believes that her time with the Dolphins not only made her a better trainer, but also strengthened her credibility with the LSU players.
“As [former Tiger] Ricky-Jean Francois [also from Miami] would say, I’m from the right side of the tracks in Miami, but I still lived in Miami,” Mullenix says. “I understand dealing with rough guys, and I understand dealing with ‘mama’s boys.’ What I think I’ve gotten a lot better in is the clinical evaluation of a player and knowing who’s pulling our leg or really in need. Or who needs a little love or a kick in the ass.”
Her confident, tough-love approach to her work has earned players’ trust.
“There are times when I feel like Shelly is the only person who can calm me down and who I can relate to,” Eugene says.
Accordingly, Mullenix says, she wants to write a book one day and call it “From Meat to Mom: the Evolution of an Athletic Trainer.” It would be an epic. It also won’t see the light of day until she’s retired.
“It would get me fired,” she says with a laugh.
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