In a roundabout way, Dean Kleinschmidt can thank Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for his long tenure as head athletic trainer for the Senior Bowl.
“Historically, since the early days of the Senior Bowl, there were two college athletic trainers that took care of the teams,” Kleinschmidt, 74, remembers. For years, one of those trainers was Jim Goostree of The University of Alabama. The Senior Bowl, Mobile’s annual college football all-star game, used to be played in early January, immediately after the season’s biggest bowl games. This began to create a problem — Coach Bryant and his Crimson Tide were just too good.
“Alabama was always playing in bowl games, so Goostree wasn’t getting to Mobile until the middle of the week,” Kleinschmidt explains.
It was January 1972, 21 years after the tournament’s debut in Mobile. Kleinschmidt had just completed his first season as the head athletic trainer for the New Orleans Saints. Hired at 23 years old, he was the youngest head trainer in the history of the NFL. The Saints staff were to coach the Senior Bowl that year, and they were asked to bring along their young trainer to cover for Goostree, who would be at the Orange Bowl with the Crimson Tide. The next year, they invited Kleinschmidt back.
“That was the beginning of it,” he says, his Minnesota accent still detectable. “That was how it happened.”
When Kleinschmidt arrives in Mobile for this year’s Reese’s Senior Bowl, to be played on February 5 at Hancock Whitney Stadium, it will mark his 50th consecutive year in the role of head trainer. This also means that Kleinschmidt is the all-star game’s most continuous thread — the only face that remains from that game in 1972. Kleinschmidt says he’s never really thought of it that way, but it’s true.
A snapshot of a career is good for a resume, but it never tells the full story. Kleinschmidt worked under 17 NFL coaches, is in the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame and the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, and is one of the most esteemed of his profession. But he puts his time with the Senior Bowl near the top of his list of proud accomplishments.
“I’ve enjoyed 43 years in the NFL,” he says. “But I’ve really loved 50 years in Mobile.”
Following the River
Kleinschmidt’s story, like the Mississippi River, begins in Minnesota; he spent his first 18 years in the rural town of Morgan, population 900. It should come as no surprise that some of Kleinschmidt’s earliest memories involve toting a toy medical kit around his neighborhood, wearing a plastic stethoscope and administering Band-Aids to his parents as they read the evening paper. “I kinda feel like I had that helper mentality growing up,” he says.
He shares another early memory, this one of a bitter cold Halloween night. After an evening of trick-or-treating, an 8-year-old Kleinschmidt collapsed on the floor of his family home, gasping for air. It was his first asthma attack.
“We had a country doctor in our little town, and he still made house calls in those days. So I had lots of visits from Dr. Johnson, coming to our house to give me asthma treatments.”
Though Kleinschmidt loved sports, his condition conspired to keep him sidelined.
“So, I started hanging out as the student equipment manager,” he says. When the head football coach received a flyer in the mail advertising a summer correspondence course for athletic training, he passed it on to his eager student manager. “I spent every week that summer waiting for the next lesson to show up in the mail,” Kleinschmidt says.
That’s how Kleinschmidt became the “quasi athletic trainer” for his Morgan High School Raiders from 7th to 12th grades, operating out of a makeshift training room that was little more than a “cubbyhole.”
Indiana University was one of the only schools at the time offering a degree in athletic training, so Kleinschmidt “followed the river” south. Indiana would open up doors of opportunity for Kleinschmidt beyond his wildest dreams. First, he landed an internship to work summer training camp with the Green Bay Packers in 1967 and 1968. “Not bad years to be with the Packers,” he says with a laugh. “In those years, they won Super Bowls I and II.”
Then, when Kleinschmidt’s boss, the head trainer at Indiana, was hired by the New Orleans Saints, he asked Kleinschmidt to come along as his assistant. “I kept following the river,” he says, “and I ended up at the mouth of the Mississippi in New Orleans.”
After just one year, the head trainer position became available. “And the team doctors went in to see the owner and the general manager and said, ‘You got to give this kid a chance.’ So in February of 1971, I became the head trainer of the Saints.”
“They call the Rose Bowl the ‘Grandaddy of All Bowls,’” Kleinschmidt says. “Well, I think the Senior Bowl is the Godfather of All-Star Games.”
The first Senior Bowl game was played in 1950 in Jacksonville, Florida. The next year, the game was moved to Mobile, and it’s been a fixture on the city’s calendar ever since. For one winter week every year, the entire NFL converges on Mobile for the country’s most prominent college football all-star game, turning the city into the focus of the football world.
“The Senior Bowl is the annual NFL family reunion,” Kleinschmidt says, noting that Mobile is where the interconnected football world reconnects after a long season. The all-star game is often a job fair, too, for recently fired staffers looking for their next employment opportunity.
Last year, 41 percent of the players taken in the NFL Draft walked the streets of Mobile just months earlier. Besides the national exposure the game brings to Mobile, a 2015 study found that the Senior Bowl has an annual economic impact of $27 million on the city.
For Kleinschmidt, the game’s significance is much more personal. He remembers the unsung security guards and support staff that make the game possible. He remembers the unheralded players whose week at the Senior Bowl launched legendary NFL careers. He remembers with some amusement how homespun the early games now seem, compared with today. In that 1972 Senior Bowl, two South team quarterbacks, Pat Sullivan of Auburn and John Reaves of Florida, both agreed to participate if they could wear their college jersey number. Unfortunately, both quarterbacks wore number 7.
“If you look closely at the team photo in the Hall of Fame at the Senior Bowl office, Reaves wore number 7R and Sullivan wore 7S,” Kleinschmidt says with a laugh. “Somebody was thinking outside the box in 1972.”
He remembers the “confidence and pride” of a relatively unknown running back at the time named Walter Payton. Although now regarded as one of the greatest football players of all time (and the namesake of the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award), in 1975, Payton was a quiet kid who insisted on riding to and from Senior Bowl practices in Kleinschmidt’s car. On game day, as both teams prepared in their respective locker rooms, Payton did something that would create a lasting memory for the trainer.
“All of a sudden, Walter Payton, whose nickname was ‘Sweetness,’ walked across the hall in his red South team jersey and entered the locker room of the North team. These were the days before whiteboards, so there was always a big chalkboard in the middle of every locker room. Walter Payton walked into the locker room of the North team, the enemy, picked up the chalk, and in this flowing handwriting, wrote in huge letters, ‘Sweetness is … Walter Payton.’ Then he dropped the chalk and walked out.
“There was silence. The other team was so shocked, they just sat there. That was Walter Payton.”
Whenever he returns to Mobile, Kleinschmidt will occasionally bump into some of the subjects of his favorite Senior Bowl memories, allowing him to relive the tales and share a laugh. He remembers the “driven, hard-nosed, tough” Bob Baumhower on game day and how the Alabama football lineman ran to the sideline between plays with a busted helmet hanging off his head.
“He comes running off to the sideline where there were other guys sitting on the bench, and he just grabbed a helmet and put it on. These days, helmets have to be microfit. I mean, they’ve got laser beams to check and make sure that they fit. Baumhower grabbed a dang helmet and ran back onto the field. I don’t even know if it fit, he just pulled it down over his head.”
When Mobilian Joe Bullard, Tulane University defensive back, showed up to the 1972 Senior Bowl with a fractured thumb, it was Kleinschmidt’s job to figure out a way to allow him to safely play in the game.
“He said, ‘This is my hometown, I’ve got to play!’ I talked to the coaching staff, and I said, ‘We can rig it up so that he can play in the game with a cast, but he really shouldn’t practice.’
“So all week long, we worked on it. We treated him, we massaged him. We worked on making the brace, the splint, the cast for his thumb so it was immobile. Then came game day. In those days, they would announce your name on the loudspeaker and you would run under the goalpost, out to the 50-yard line and then run over to the bench — he pulled his hamstring running out of the tunnel. Missed the whole game.” Kleinschmidt and Bullard shared a laugh about that story when the pair reconnected recently at a Senior Bowl Charity Golf Tournament.
Since leaving the Saints in 2000, after 31 years, Kleinschmidt has worked as head trainer for the Washington Redskins (now the Washington Football Team) and his alma mater, Indiana University. He then worked as director of sports medicine for the Detroit Lions for eight years before retiring from the NFL in 2015. All the while, the Senior Bowl kept calling. “I never assumed it was automatic,” he says. “I always waited for the phone call.”
Starting about 10 years ago, the two NFL coaching staffs began bringing their own trainers to Mobile, so Kleinschmidt now serves as “medical coordinator,” ensuring that both staffs have complete access to the equipment and resources they need.
“Earlier, I said the game is an NFL family reunion, but it’s a family reunion for me, too, with all of the Senior Bowl people. And it’s been such an honor,” he says, emotion in his voice. “I do it because I’ve always been treated with such respect and dignity when I get to Mobile, probably more so than any other place that I’ve worked.”