ORONO, Maine — By his own admission, athletic trainer Phil Mateja said he was “vertically challenged” at Warren Township High School in his native Gurnee, Ill.
That meant instead of participating in sports like football and basketball, he wound up wrestling and playing tennis.
“I decided I wasn’t going to be a great athlete. But I wanted to stay involved in sports and I wanted to help people. This is the next best thing,” said Mateja.
So that led Mateja to the University of Missouri and his career as an athletic trainer.
That was more than 40 years ago.
The 60-year-old Mateja is the athletic trainer at Hampden Academy these days, and he also teaches life skills in the special education department.
He has compiled an impressive resume that includes athletic trainer at the University of Maine for 13 years, working in a similar capacity and dealing with safety and workers compensation issues at the paper mills in Millinocket and Brewer, stints at HealthSouth and with chiropractor Tommy Vanidestine. He then returned as a trainer at Brewer High and Hampden Academy.
He was even the fitness director at the Bangor YMCA.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” he acknowledged.
He has been a permanent fixture as the trainer at the Bangor Auditorium during the Eastern Maine and state high school basketball championships beginning in 2001, and he will ply his trade at the new Cross Insurance Center beginning with the 2014 tournaments.
He has impacted countless lives during his career.
“He performed miracles with a lot of our kids,” said former Brewer High School athletic director Dennis Kiah. “I have actually sent a letter to [Maine Sports Hall of Fame president] Dick Whitmore suggesting that Phil be a candidate for the Hall of Fame.
“He was a valuable person to our athletic program for so many years. It was sad to see him go to Hampden,” added Kiah.
Kiah said Mateja would come in on his days off to take care of injured student-athletes.
“He did a lot of things above and beyond that people don’t know about,” said Kiah.
“All of our coaches trusted him,” added Kiah. “As an athletic director, you want to make sure things are taken care of and that is one area I never had to worry about.”
Hampden Academy athletic director Mike Bisson concurred.
“We are so fortunate to have someone with that kind of experience and background. He has seen it all over the years and he’s great to work with,” said Bisson. “It is a luxury to have someone here who can get our players back on the field or court quicker. And once he has treated our players, his follow-ups are outstanding.
“He checks in regularly with the kids and their families. He’s very professional,” said Bisson. “And he will put in time whether he gets paid or not in order to do what’s best for the kids.”
Bisson noted that Mateja’s low-key demeanor is a real asset.
“He doesn’t overreact. He keeps the situation calm. We’ve had some fairly significant injuries but he does a great job keeping the players calm and putting things into perspective,” added Bisson.
Mateja loves his job.
“I’m never bored,” he said. “There’s no set schedule of things to do. You never know what each day is going to bring. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s a challenge every day.”
The equipment is much better these days, but Mateja said a trainer can’t worry about the equipment.
“We didn’t have a tremendous amount of equipment at Missouri or at Maine. But you don’t need all the bells and whistles. You learn to work with what you have,” said Mateja. “You use your hands and brains.”
The major influence in Mateja’s life was legendary former University of Missouri trainer Fred Wappel, who is in the Missouri Sports Medicine Hall of Fame, the National Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame and the University of Missouri Sports Hall.
“He was the main reason I got into training,” said Mateja, a 1974 graduate of the University of Missouri. He came to UMaine after graduation and earned a master’s degree in 1977.
One of the highlights of his career came in 2001 when he began his stint as the trainer at the Eastern Maine basketball tournaments at the Bangor Auditorium.
He provides coverage for 40-plus games every winter.
“I love it. I’ve met so many people,” said Mateja, who also schedules trainers for Eastern Maine championship games in a number of sports. “There are some long days. You don’t always see some of the most exciting games. But I enjoy being there for the kids.”
He is looking forward to being on hand when the basketball tournaments make their debut at the Cross Insurance Center, which replaced the Bangor Auditorium.
“I can’t wait,” said Mateja who is the possessor of a clever sense of humor which serves him well in his profession. He has treated several All-Americans and said he used to have a “lot of fun” when he traveled with the UMaine teams.
The profession has changed over the years with concussion care coming to the forefront of late.
“When I was back at Missouri, it wasn’t a big concern. You’d give them a towel with ice in it and as soon as they knew where the field was, they went back in,” said Mateja. “But now we are all very, very concerned. Athletes have suffered career-ending and life-threatening concussions. So you have to treat them very carefully.
“There is a lot of testing and you’re dealing with doctors,” he added. “You have to make sure you don’t send an athlete back to play until they are completely ready. Even though they may be symptom-free, they may still have problems when they return to activity so you have to keep an eye on it.”
Mateja said he has benefited from his stint working with special education students in Hampden.
“I have learned to calm down,” said Mateja. “I work with some impatient people … coaches. And coaches are demanding. These kids have needs and you have to take care of their needs. We do different activities with them, take them on trips. We basically try to get them ready for life after high school. I love it.”
Retirement isn’t on the radar screen for Orono resident Mateja. He and wife Judy Mateja have one son, Jeff, and a three-month-old grandson, Parker.
“I love what I do. I want to help people. I can’t sit still. I’m too busy doing stuff,” said Mateja who still gets a thrill helping an athlete recover from an injury.
Bill Leithiser, the principal at the Brewer Community School, has known Mateja since he moved to Maine in 1974. Leithiser has been treated by Mateja when he was an athlete; has had his sons Jake and Alex treated by Mateja and has had Mateja work on his athletes when he was coaching track and cross country at Old Town High.
“There is no doubt in my mind that my kids and I wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had in athletics without Phil,” said Leithiser. “He was always accessible. He really knows his stuff. My sons would never return to play, even if they had been treated by a doctor, until Phil said it was OK.
“He’s a good man,” added Leithiser.