Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
WAVERLY — It’s been said that, for some, leaving home means leaving with your feet and never with your heart.
That’s certainly true for Lauren Breitenbach.
Last week, Breitenbach spent her last day as Waverly High School’s athletic trainer — a day that ended with gifts, hugs, tons of photo ops and yes, tears.
She isn’t just leaving a piece of her heart in Waverly. She’s leaving a legacy of kindness that a countless number of students have depended upon for four years now.
“I remember how inviting my trainer was when I was in high school. You didn’t have to have something wrong with you. You could just be in that room when you needed to be in there,” Breitenbach said. “That was always the environment I wanted to create. I wanted it to be a safe place where any athlete could come to if they needed it.”
That venture was successful. Just ask any athlete.
“Her first year here was my freshman year. She’s always been more than just a trainer to us,” senior Zeke Brown said. “We’ve gone to her for school work, for personal problems … she’s just a whole lot more than a trainer. She always provided us with everything we needed. We’re really going to miss her. It’s sad to see her go.”
Breitenbach’s next adventure will take place out west. She’s narrowed her options to two states, between Washington or Oregon. There, she’ll be a traveling physical therapy assistant on 13-week assignments.
“I prayed and prayed about it. I felt the need to put myself out there,” Breitenbach said. “Things just kept progressing and it was like, ‘OK, I guess this is what I’m going to do.’ So I’ve picked where I’m going. I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn’t just drive home. I’m ready to rip the band-aid off.”
So the question begs itself … why?
“I gave this job everything I had. And when you do this job the way that I did it, it wears you out,” Breitenbach said. “As an athletic trainer, you’re never off. You’re doing this all the time. They have your number and if I don’t answer, they’re in your driveway. I love it and I love them. But after this year with COVID and everything, and how it changed the dynamic of the job, I realized that life is just so short. I’ve always wanted to be a travel PTA and see the country. “
Breitenbach is headed for greener pastures. But that doesn’t mean she won’t miss her hometown.
The 2008 Waverly graduate still remembers when she got the job at her alma mater. She had spent the past four years as the trainer at both Eastern and Western High Schools. That was her first job after graduating from Shawnee State University.
So in 2017, when she got the call that Waverly had an opening, she jumped at the opportunity.
Since, she’s done nothing but leave her mark on young hearts. And vice versa.
“When I started at Waverly, it was different because I already knew everybody,” Breitenbach said. “I felt right at home because it is my home. I love these kids. As a trainer, you build a relationship with them. And that’s obviously more so with the injured ones, and some of them I’m closer to than others. But I feel like I’m their older, cool aunt. You don’t realize what you mean to them until you realize it. And it’s like, ‘Oh they actually do care that I’m here.’”
One athlete that racked up frequent flyer mileage in the training room was Tigers quarterback Haydn’ Shanks, who led the team to three straight playoff appearances. But in both of his junior and senior years, he played on a torn ACL.
Breitenbach was there every step of the way.
“The things that Haydn’ can do and overcome … he’s so resilient. You literally just cannot stop him,” Breitenbach said. “To come to practice everyday and watch that was amazing. Everybody sees the Friday nights. He throws for five-hundred yards and five touchdowns with a torn ACL. But nobody saw the aftermath, what his knee looked like, how swollen it was. He’d tell me he couldn’t bend down to tie his cleats. That type of stuff. It was just amazing.”
And, of course, there were a slew of other athletes who made it a point to see their favorite trainer at a frequent rate — whether by choice or necessity.
“Carli Knight played a volleyball season on a broken fibula, Zoiee Smith has had a countless number of rolled ankles, Phoenix Wolf had an ankle dislocation … and there’s been plenty of others,” Breitenbach recalled. “Just to watch those kids … people don’t realize the impact these injuries have on these kids. It’s not just the rehab part but the mental aspect. It’s the midnight text messages that say, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.’ That’s not realized.”
Those are just some of things that Breitenbach will remember about her four-year tenure at Waverly. Of course, the bad memories are severely outweighed by the positive recollections.
When Breitenbach arrived at Waverly, she started a process that’s now paid its dividends.
“When I got here, I started making the kids memory boxes. It’s just a box that has their name on it and it has mementos inside,” Breitenbach said. “For Haydn’, I wrote a quote on his wristband before every game. I have every single piece of tape from every single game in his box. There are pictures in the kids’ boxes, I wrote quotes on the girls’ ankle braces when they’d cheer. So I’ve accumulated all of these things through the years.”
That’s just another reminder of how special Breitenbach was … as a trainer and as a person.
“I told her that she was going to have me crying by the end of her last day,” Waverly junior Will Futhey said. “Everybody loves her. From football to basketball, she didn’t feel like a trainer. She was a friend to us. You knew she really cared about you. I believe she cared about us more than you could ever put into words. We’re really going to miss her. She was just special.”
Breitenbach will certainly miss the athletes, coaches and parents as well. But she does have something to help relive the good days when she’s feeling down out west.
“I had to make myself a box,” Breitenbach said, smiling. “I’ve got pictures in there, field passes from playoff games, split the pot tickets, etcetera. I’m super sappy like that. So I’ll have that and I’ll take it with me and I’ll probably cry when I look at it. But I love looking back on that kind of stuff. You can always look back at those things and think about how perfect those moments were.”
When Lauren Breitenbach gets to where she’s going, her feet will be with her. But her heart?
That part of her, at least a piece of it, will always reside in Waverly and with her students.
“The little things are what I’ll miss the most,” Breitenbach said. “When a kid comes to me excited about a good grade they get on a test. Or when they say, ‘Lauren, I got into my dream school.’ We’ve applied for colleges together, I’ve given pep talks, helped with homework. There’s really not a job I haven’t done. It just makes you feel like you’re a part of it all. I wouldn’t trade that part for anything. I’ve loved my experience here. And I love these kids.”