Nancy Burke estimates she has treated more than 1,200 injuries in 21 years as a certified athletic trainer at South Lakes High School. Computer databases detail her process of identifying and healing those wounds, but left uncharted are Burke's interactions with students at the Reston school.
Today at the 12th annual Washington Post All-Met Luncheon, Burke will receive the Donald Huff Award for unheralded service to high school athletics. About 330 student-athletes and 30 coaches also will be honored for achieving excellence in their respective sports this year. U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena is the guest speaker.
South Lakes honored Burke in March by officially naming its training room "The Nancy Burke Center." Burke, 48, laughed humbly when asked about the dedication, which included the installation of a brass plaque on the wall outside the always-open training room door.
"Most people have things dedicated to them when they're dead," Burke said. "It's an honor [because] I'm not going to be here forever . . . but it is unnecessary. There are not very many people that have found a job or occupation or a calling . . . that they really enjoy."
Burke was born in Elmira, N.Y., and moved to the Washington area at age 10. She graduated from McLean High in 1969 and earned an undergraduate degree in health and physical education in 1973 from James Madison. When she completed her master's degree in exercise physiology from Eastern Kentucky in 1976, Burke became one of the first 15 trainers in the country to be certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association.
Burke wanted to work at a university, but funding for research in sports medicine was scarce, so she began a teaching career in 1976 at Marshall High in Falls Church. She transferred to South Lakes when it opened in 1978.
For the next 21 years, student-athletes have poured in and out of Burke's "office," a room filled with rolls of first-aid tape, training tables, a whirlpool bath and posters bearing inspirational messages.
Ruth Overton is the mother of six children -- five boys and one girl -- all of whom were student-athletes at South Lakes. "We are very familiar with Nancy Burke," Overton said. "She is really wonderful. She has brought several of our kids back from pretty severe injuries. It's always good to know that the right thing will be done when she is around."
Overton's youngest son, Rob, was an All-Met defender in soccer last year as a junior. Rob Overton, who also played football and basketball at the school, suffered a spiral fracture in his left ankle during a football practice last fall. Burke helped him develop a fitness regimen despite being unable to run or ride a stationary bicycle. "Right when it happened, I thought I would never play sports again," Overton said. "She got me through that. She told me that this happens a lot and that she would rehab it. She went to the hospital and stayed with me the whole time."
After surgery on the ankle, Overton missed the entire football season but returned to earn All-Met recognition in soccer this spring.
When Becky Hayter was a junior gymnast at South Lakes in 1990, she was far more concerned with her sport than her studies. One spring day, Burke asked Hayter to come with her to the football stadium. There, on the stadium's concrete stairs, Burke had put a two-by-four-inch wooden beam with the name "Becky Hayter" inscribed in permanent marker.
"She was failing two classes," Burke said. "I said, `Do you know what being hit upside the head with a two-by-four means? Well, this two-by-four has your name on it. You are not going to graduate. I want you to sit here and think about that. You will be sitting at home picturing all your friends go across the stage. You won't be here at graduation because you will be too embarrassed.' "
The message sank in. Hayter sought tutoring and turned her grades around. Burke kept the two-by-four in a closet at school so she could show it to Hayter again -- if necessary. Hayter graduated in 1991 and eventually returned to South Lakes to coach gymnastics.
"Not just the two-by-four, but Nancy Burke, in general, got me through high school," said Hayter, who plans to earn a degree in social work. "I was not easy to deal with in high school. I was a pain. . . . I needed some sense knocked into me and she did it. Even now, as an adult, I call her from time to time, and she is there for me, 100 percent."
Burke teaches five classes, including driver's education, physical education and two sports medicine classes. In 1984, South Lakes became the first Fairfax County school to offer sports medicine classes, which now are offered throughout the county.
After school dismisses at 2:10 p.m. each day, Burke spends the next hour or two in the training room -- evaluating injuries, administering treatment and writing instructions to coaches for athletes whose activities must be limited. She then makes rounds on the practice fields. When practices end, Burke may have a few hours to relax at home or grade papers before returning for night athletic contests. Most of her workdays end around 10:30 p.m.
"I do have a personal life, which most people don't believe," Burke said. "Yes, I am single, but a lot of that is circumstances taking me to things I want to do rather than too many relationships."
But Burke's commitments are not confined to South Lakes. She is a safety adviser for the women's division of U.S. Lacrosse and the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations. Working with William & Mary field hockey coach Peel Hawthorne, Burke designed a line of protective eye wear for female athletes, particularly those in lacrosse and field hockey.
Burke was a training site director at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, overseeing a training facility that handled five sports, including men's and women's gymnastics.
Larry Nottingham, a trainer at Robinson, became the first certified athletic trainer in Fairfax County high schools when he was hired at Edison in 1973. Burke was among the first five when she started at Marshall in 1976. Now, each of Fairfax County's 23 public schools is required to employ at least one certified personal trainer.
"To be a great trainer, you obviously have to have knowledge," Nottingham said. "But you also have to have an empathy for the athletes. You have to understand that they want to play. We want them to play as quickly and as safely as possible. That understanding is what sets people apart, and Nancy has it."
Burke takes pride in being able to identify injuries and prescribe the best ways to get the athlete back on the field or court.
"My job as a teacher . . . is to take an unfinished product that parents have sent you, and make it a product that is capable of dealing -- on its own -- with life. That doesn't mean that they are all going to be rocket scientists or professional athletes, but they need to have capable skills. They need to be comfortable with who they are, they need to laugh, not take themselves too seriously."
As a teacher, Burke said she wants her students to learn organization, preparation, punctuality and acceptance of others. As a trainer, she gets to see students in a less formal setting and ends up teaching lessons in many other issues of life.
David Harris was a senior center on the South Lakes basketball team in 1982. He suffered a sprained ankle and worked with Burke in daily rehabilitation. One day he arrived and Burke sensed something was wrong. When she inquired, Harris did not respond right away. Finally, he began confiding about breaking up with his girlfriend.
"I wish you could tape a heart the way you can tape an ankle, Miss Burke," Harris said.
CAPTION: Nancy Burke, who was among the first 15 certified trainers in United States, has treated more than 1,200 injuries in 21 years at South Lakes High. She also teaches sports medicine classes.