Organized athletics at Bucknell dates back to the 1860s, but it was not until after World War II when the university hired a full-time athletic trainer to tend to the health and safety of its student-athletes. When Edgar “Hal” Biggs took the position at Bucknell in 1948 after completing his degree at Ohio State and a stint as an army medic in France during the war, the football players were still wearing leather helmets. Athletic training equipment consisted of a heat lamp, two tables, a cranky whirlpool and some gauze, and prior to his arrival it was usually up to the athletic director and coaches to give rubdowns and tend to injuries as best they could.
The field of sports medicine has evolved almost infinitely in the last 70 years, but over that span, incredibly there have been only two individuals who have overseen Bucknell’s athletic training program. Biggs served as head athletic trainer until 1986, and his successor, Mark Keppler, has worked in that capacity ever since. It is hard to imagine another program in the country has featured only two athletic trainers since 1948.
While Biggs’ initial athletic training offerings were minimal, it was quickly apparent that he was an innovator in his field. One of his first initiatives at Bucknell was to switch from leather to hard plastic football helmets. He also helped improve shoulder pads to provide more coverage, and he ordered the shortening of the football cleats to help reduce ankle and knee injuries.
Today, training tape is a staple in any athletic training room. Not so back then. In fact, Biggs was a trendsetter in the use of tape to prevent injuries. In 1966, Biggs presented his study on “The Use of Adhesive Tape in the Prevention and Care of Athletic Injuries” to the Geisinger Medical Center at the hospital’s conference on treatment and prevention of athletic injuries.
Football coach Harry Lawrence was quoted in the early 1950s as saying, “We’ll be playing by the grace of Biggs again this Saturday.”
“Hal took what was here at the time and greatly elevated it,” said Keppler, who recently announced his retirement after 31 years at Bucknell and recalls his interaction with Biggs fondly. “This was the post-war era, and he brought Bucknell to a level that had not been seen anywhere, with the use of the heat lamp, the use of massaging and so forth. People knew about taping, but it was actually kind of a specialty at that point. He took sports medicine to the highest level of expertise that was out there at the time.”
Not only did Biggs serve as athletic trainer, but he was also a physical education professor, a gifted jazz musician who often entertained at conferences and on road trips, and a trusted mentor to many young Bucknell students who might have needed some advice on growing up away from home. Biggs and his wife, Yvonne, whom he met in France during the war, were frequent chaperones at fraternity hops and other campus events.
A regular at conferences and lectures across the country, Biggs served on the board of the National Athletic Trainers Association and as president of the Pennsylvania Athletic Trainers Society. He was inducted into the national Athletic Training Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Bucknell Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984.
College athletics has grown immeasurably since 1948, and even though Bucknell had only nine sports when he first arrived, Biggs was quick to realize that he could not be everywhere at once. So he instituted a popular student trainer program. Many of his former pupils went on to become prominent orthopedic surgeons and athletic trainers themselves.
“Hal realized even back then, well before the onset of ‘non-traditional’ sports seasons, that he could not be at all places at all times,” Keppler recalls. “So he understood the value of getting young people involved, teaching them and providing them the tools to take care of the teams, so if he couldn’t be there in body he could be there in spirit. As athletic programs expanded with the onset of Title IX in the early 1970s, athletic training staffs had to grow as well. But even prior to that, he was way ahead of the curve in terms of getting students involved.”
“I came to Bucknell because they offered me what I wanted most, to be considered part of the university faculty situation,” Biggs told Bucknell World in 1980. “I’ve always made it a point that I am a teacher as well as a trainer, and Bucknell offered me the opportunity to combine those two things.”
In 1978 Biggs got some full-time help for the first time, as Carol Chrzanowski was hired as associate athletic trainer, primarily to work with Bucknell’s growing array of women’s sports. By the mid-1980s, Biggs had developed a fairly severe case of arthritis, and he had trouble tearing tape, which is a near-constant duty of any athletic trainer. In May of 1986, director of athletics Bruce Corrie created the position of coordinator of sports medicine for Biggs, and he hired Keppler as head athletic trainer.
For the previous 11 years Keppler had been the head athletic trainer at Carnegie-Mellon, which had a nationally prominent Division III football team at the time. Keppler had known Biggs not only through the Pennsylvania Athletic Trainers Society, but from a pair of head-to-head meetings on the gridiron in 1984 and 1985 (Carnegie-Mellon defeated the Bison in Pittsburgh in ’85; Bucknell won handily in ‘84). Biggs was impressed with Keppler’s work and went to bat for him during the search process.
Biggs, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 81, ultimately retired from Bucknell in 1988, leaving the athletic training program in good hands with Keppler ever since.
Nearly 30 years later Keppler has joined Biggs in the PATS Hall of Fame, and saw his staff grow to 10 full-time members who are continually challenged to keep up with 27 varsity sports programs all of which now have longer competition seasons and formal offseason training that did not exist years ago.
Keppler marvels at the advances in technology during his tenure. When he arrived at Bucknell, arthroscopic surgery and magnetic resonance imaging were just starting to emerge as standard techniques for injury evaluation and repair. Today, arthroscopy and MRI are staples of the profession.
“The study of MRI now almost takes the place of a clinical exam,” says Keppler. “It gives you a picture of the inside of a joint, you can see the problem clearly, and you go from there. With the use of arthroscopy, we have been able to redefine the shoulder and the knee and how they work. You can go in there now with just a pinhole and see the whole thing, instead of opening the patient up completely and now you have destroyed the entire view of what actually happened. These advances have helped in making medicine better, improving operating techniques and understanding the mechanism of the injury better. The improvements have moved us forward in light years in terms of health care.”
Concussions have become a prominent issue in the world of athletics, and at Bucknell Keppler remained keenly focused on the latest research and testing. Bison student-athletes undergo baseline testing, and every precaution is taken to prevent and treat head injuries. Unlike in the professional ranks, these are full-time students at a prestigious university, and concussions not only affect play on the field, but also classwork.
Keppler worked with faculty leadership to help them understand what happens during a concussion, both physically and cognitively, and what measures can be taken to help with recovery, such as avoiding looking at television or computer screens in a dark room.
While so much has changed in the last nearly 70 years, the fundamentals of athletic training are still very much the same. Keppler finds it remarkable that Bucknell has employed only two head athletic trainers since 1948, but he notes that the one common denominator between he and Biggs are the Bison student-athletes.
“For me, I never thought that I would be here this long,” Keppler admits. “Time has flown. I can remember coming on campus in 1986, and now I look and it’s 30 years later. I don’t know how many athletes I’ve seen come through. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been a pleasant one because I enjoy working with the student-athletes every day. I know it was the same for Hal. One year Tex Schramm came and offered Hal a job in the NFL, but the opportunity to work with Bucknell’s students was too good to leave. They are the reason we are here.”