When Dale Mildenberger first set foot on the campus of Utah State University in 1975, he did so very reluctantly, sure it was just a job to get him started. Now, 38 years later with numerous accolades, including his name on the wall of the Dale Mildenberger Sports Medicine Complex, he leaves Utah State having dedicated his career to the care and well being of countless student-athletes.
When you talk about leaving a legacy, you think of people who have completely devoted themselves to their career and their community. Though he may hate to admit it, Mildenberger has done just that.
What started as a job just to get his feet in the door turned into not only a career, but also a lifestyle.
“When I took the job, I never counted on staying that long. I never counted on liking it when I took it. I was 25 years old and taking a Division I job, who knew where that could lead,” Mildenberger said. “It has been a fantastic personal and professional platform for me. I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve had some opportunities to leave and have chosen not to.”
And after a while, time starts to add up.
“Every Tuesday turned into 38 years,” Mildenberger said. “You were still here one Tuesday which turned into another Tuesday and sooner or later there were 38 years of Tuesdays.”
As an athletic trainer, you are interacting with countless people on a daily basis. From student-athletes to coaches to the athletic trainers, being enthusiastic and happy around the people you are working with is a must. Mildenberger says that is what he will miss the most.
“I’ll miss the interaction with the athletic trainers and the student-athletes. Athletic training is a people business,” he said. “We’re taking care of highly-motivated, highly-skilled student-athletes. You have to work with great people to get that job done.”
Nate Wickizer played basketball for the Aggies from 1992 to 1995. Now the chief operating officer of Cache Valley Electric, he looks back fondly on the days of interacting with Mildenberger.
“I was with him a lot during the years I played basketball at Utah State. He prepared us to play when we had injuries. He took care of us when we traveled. He was in charge of everything from the flights to the rental cars, the food and meal money, all the preparation,” Wickizer said. “He was kind of the man. I had as much interaction during my years at USU with him as I had with anyone.”
Wickizer is just one of easily thousands of people whose lives have been touched by Mildenberger. After 38 years in Cache Valley, he knows and works with a lot of people. Many of the athletes and trainers he has worked with have gone on to have highly successful careers of their own.
Jim Thornton started his career at Utah State as a student trainer. Now the head trainer at Clarion University, as well as the president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, he is quick to credit his success to Mildenberger.
“From my standpoint, if you measure the effect that Dale had on me and my success, I’d say his career was definitely a successful one. He has left a legacy in me as an athletic trainer. He has affected my career and my life in a way that I can never repay. I only pray that I can have that sort of effect on my students,” Thornton said.
Now 25 years into his own career, Thornton cites Mildenberger as his drive and motivation to teach his own student trainers how to work with athletes.
“I’m about as far up the ladder as I can go in our organization, but I still feel that I need to continue to try and improve things so that Dale is not disappointed. You don’t ever want to seem like you’ve stopped trying to get better or trying to make him proud of you,” Thornton said. “I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to make sure that what I did was working toward an approval from Dale. You spend a lot of time making sure that you try to do what you know Dale would want you to do.”
Thornton has tried to instill Mildenberger’s teachings into his classroom and training.
“You’re supposed to be better than your mentor, that’s kind of the way it goes. You hope that you can contribute and be better,” Thornton said. “In Dale’s case, that would be very, very difficult. He has influenced the work ethic, sense of responsibility and sense of giving back to tons of students to the extent that very few of us could say we could repay him.”
Mike Williams also started his career as a student trainer under Mildenberger. He returned to Logan after graduate school and after 14 years as an assistant trainer at Utah State, and now Williams is set to take over the program after Mildenberger retires.
“Pretty much 90 percent of what I know in sports medicine I learned from him,” Williams said. “He’s been instrumental in a lot of careers, whether that be in student-athletes or athletic trainers.”
As an athletic trainer, it is important to gain the respect and attention of the various coaches you work with along with the student-athletes.
Current USU men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill has that respect for Mildenberger.
“In the 15 years I have been at Utah State, Dale has been a constant source of professionalism, mixed with plenty of wisdom and humor. Mildy has made sure the student-athletes at Utah State were given the best care possible, while also earning respect from everyone involved in athletics,” Morrill said. “Dale is a friend and we will miss seeing him on an everyday basis because of his character and his wonderful ability to make us laugh.”
Mildenberger came to Utah State at a time when the university was not as widely recognized as it is now. Funding was limited; facilities were small and less than impressive.
Bob Carlson spent 19 years as the head wrestling coach at Utah State after a stellar career of his own. Additionally, he spent 12 years as an assistant athletics director before moving to Clarion University as an associate athletics director. On staff when Mildenberger was hired, the two have been close friends ever since.
“It’s a great place to work, but at times it was frustrating. We never had the facilities or the money that some of the bigger schools had. It was hard to stay there. He could have gone to some of the big-time programs but chose to stay,” Carlson said. “It grows on you. Cache Valley is a special place to be.”
At the start of Mildenberger’s tenure, he had a small office, which doubled as the athletic training center. Now, with a nationally recognized athletic training program, student-athletes have a large portion of the Jim & Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex devoted to them. The sports medicine complex is named after none other than Mildenberger.
“He went through a lot of the bad times and is now reaping the benefits. He went through a lot of coaches and athletic directors who all had their own philosophy,” Carlson said. “No matter what was going on, Dale was helping us with everything. He was involved and that makes him a special kind of person.”
Mildenberger’s philosophy of involvement has played a vital role in the success he has seen. Each former athlete or athletic employee acknowledged its importance and the encouragement of such they received from Mildenberger before setting out on their own.
“One of the things he learned from his mentor was that if you want to be in on the decisions, you’d better be in the room where they make the decisions,” Williams said. “He’s just an active guy. He’s in the Rotary Club, the Country Club, that’s just his personality. Regardless of what profession he chose, he would be the guy in the middle of things, wanting to be involved in the decisions.”
Just before his graduation from Utah State, Thornton and Mildenberger went to Colorado to teach a first-aid class. On the return trip to Logan, Thornton told Mildenberger he would be leaving for graduate school and asked for some final advice.
“Without even taking a breath, he told me to be involved. He followed it up saying that anyone can stand outside in the hallway and gripe and moan about what isn’t being done, or what’s wrong with things,” Thornton said. “To make a difference, you have to get in the room and you have to be involved. It takes someone saying they’re going to be involved and not stop working and making things better. Dale is still doing that now.”
Carlson said that is why Mildenberger has had such a successful and impactful career at Utah State.
“In order to succeed you have to take part. That’s one of Dale’s strengths. He had a good head on his shoulders and an idea of how it should be done,” Carlson said. “He’s been a great addition to the program there.”
That dedication and involvement led Mildenberger to be more than just an athletic trainer.
“He is someone who just worked hard and was always engaged. He’s done so much more for the school than most people really know,” Wickizer said. “Yes, being the head trainer is unbelievably important, but he’s gone well beyond that in his roles in the athletic department.”
As he readies to take over Mildenberger’s position, Williams recognizes the large shoes he has to fill.
“It’s going to be hard, no matter what happens. He’s so well known both in the community and in the world of athletic training. He’s going to be hard to replace,” Williams said. “The good part is that he’ll still be in Logan. We’re still going to be calling him, we’re still going to be using him, we’re still going to take advantage of that training that someone like him can offer. We’re going to tap into that.”
Mildenberger is pleased with his 38-year career at Utah State.
“It’s more than just a job. I’ve stayed because I’ve chosen to stay. I felt like I had a better chance of solving problems here rather than trade them for problems elsewhere. Utah State is an incredible professional platform. It is an incredible institution,” Mildenberger said. “On a national scope, Utah State is very respected, not only academically, but athletically.”
As the longest-tenured USU athletics employee, Mildenberger will officially retire on May 1. There is no question in anyone’s mind that he will leave behind a legacy both inside and outside of the training room.
“I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made as an institution and as a sports medicine program. It’s been a very fulfilling experience. It’s more than a job, it’s what I do,” Mildenberger said. “It’s going to be an interesting transition to not do this anymore, but it’s time.”
Megan Allen is a reporter for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company