Mad River Union
ARCATA – Nate Kees has a hands-on job as athletic trainer for the Humboldt Crabs.
At the Arcata Ball Park on a recent game day, pitcher Matt Richardson is stretched out on a folding table. With his fingertips, Kees is probing carefully along the player’s neck, massaging gently, twisting Richardson’s head from side to side.
“On days he throws, the pain spikes a bit,” Kees said. “We’re working to keep up his range of motion.”
For players like Richardson, it’s personalized therapy that makes a difference. “It helps big time,” he said.
With a shaved head, sunglasses, earrings in both lobes, Kees does not look like a typical sports medicine professional. He admitted he’s not the stereotype of a trainer – khaki pants, polo shirt, or with a manner that is overly “polite and proper.” He embraces his cowboy image.
When he talks, his hands constantly gesture. It’s a trait he inherited from his father. Both parents were Division I coaches in Montana, and his mom in California. Kees moved to Humboldt at age 19 in 1998 to attend HSU. He met his wife Amber here. They have three boys – Tanner, 8, Rylan, 6, and infant Jayon, barely 10 weeks old. They live in McKinleyville.
Kees is his ninth year of a regular gig as the athletic trainer for College of the Redwoods.
Andrew Aiello, the recruiting coach for Corsairs football program, was sitting eld side counting pitches for the Crabs. During the fall season, he coaches CR’s defensive line and special teams.
Aiello has coached professionally for 10 years. “Nate is one of the most knowledgeable trainers I’ve been around, but what separates him is how personable he is. From the moment you meet him, he makes you feel like you’re part of his own family. As a coach who is new to this community, that’s definitely a big deal. Every day I’m thankful we have Nate.”
Underrated asset for Crabs
Athletic trainers were underrated for decades. The American Medical Association recognized the importance of the role in 1990, but even today, therapeutic injury prevention and rehabilitation are often overlooked in the world of sports.
Aside from his unconventional – if definitely Humboldt – appearance, it’s not easy to overlook Nate Kees, even if he is not listed on the Crabs official roster.
Kees gets to know the guys on the team in ways no one else does. “It’s knowing what they’re feeling, what they like, what they don’t like, what they need before starts,” Kees said. “It’s getting to them know personally, so it’s borderline friendship but still professional. They can be candid with me because I don’t control their play time, I don’t control how many innings they throw.”
Sometimes players tell him things they don’t want anyone else to know. Other times, Kees is the intermediary between players who don’t want to be regarded as a crybaby or lacking in team spirit, and the coaches they do not want to disappoint.
“That way they’re not coming out in a way where they appear weak or giving up on the team or shying away from the pressure,” Kees said.
That bond of trust creates lasting friendships. “I still have guys, coaches and players, on the speed dial on my phone from years past. You’ve got to help somebody in one of their weakest moments.”
Kees has been an athletic trainer for the Crabs for a decade and half. He is in his ninth year with College of the Redwoods. He works with (or has served) Humboldt Roller Derby, Team USA Judo and Humboldt State University football. He can also be found taping the hands of the Lost Boys, the local mixed martial arts guys who participate in casino bouts.
Crabs baseball summer season is his opportunity to work with higher level athletes; Division I, Division II, and top level junior college ball players. During those 10 weeks, he can usually be found working on pitchers. “Pitching is one of the most violent sequences that a body can do,” Kees said. The duel with batters is the central element of the game, and that puts a uniquely heavy burden of pressure on pitchers – physically and mentally. When Kees observes a problem – a hitch in a throwing motion, a grimace of pain – he takes the initiative. “I’m a bit of a cowboy. They know that. I don’t wait for permission.”
Proud to pamper
It can be difficult for an athlete to admit being in persistent pain, so his assertiveness is appreciated by the Crabs. Kees regularly checks on players with aches and pains, and he follows his instincts if he thinks someone is silently hurting.
The athletes come from collegiate programs but usually do not get such pampering. With the Crabs, there is less pressure to hide injuries for fear of losing playing time or jeopardizing a scholarship.
Out of hundreds of Crabs players he has treated, Kees said he can count on one hand those who did not follow through with a specific treatment.
Kees is particularly happy to be working for first-year Crabs general manager Robin Guiver. They enjoy a close working relationship. “Robin is 100 percent behind me because he knows that coaches who send their guys here to play a position or as pitcher, those coaches know their guys are going to get taken care of.”
The 2017 season marks a maturation of Kees’ role with the Crabs. For his first five years with the ball club, he was the only athletic trainer. This year he enjoys a staff of two assistants.
He persuaded Lisa Martinez, a Sacramento State graduate, to help him for a year at College of the Redwoods. “She decided to stay,” he said, and she now contributes to the Crabs, as does Erica McMullen, a recent Humboldt State graduate in kinesiology and soccer player who is considering a master’s program in athletic training. It’s not com-monplace to see young women on staff as athletic trainers, and that is a source of satisfaction for Kees.
He also enjoys a close relationship with the local rivals of the Crabs, the Humboldt B52’s, and has recommended qualified trainers to that squad. But his heart and soul in summertime is with Arcata’s baseball bunch.
He is happy to be part of the Crabs 73-year tradition, especially his role in contributing to the positive relationships with colleges that act as feeder programs. “Summer after summer, we are getting guys who want to be here because of the Crabs reputation. Pitchers that work with me, they go home and tell other guys, ‘We get pampered, we get almost anything we want whenever we need it.’ Over the years, having those relationships has been really nice.”
Coaches will visit Arcata to see their guys play, and that includes checking on their health. Kees is involved in that conversation. And as the Crabs will sometimes get a ball player for more than one season, Kees has time to make a difference.
It’s a challenge he absolutely loves, not least because it forces him to continually learn and improve his craft. “Our bodies are very similar, but how we deal with the stress of our position, how we move, and the tendencies and patterns we fall into, those are different. It’s never going to be a textbook example of the same thing from person to person.”
Kees is always looking for insights – what he calls “pearls of information” about the human body. “The education process is never over.” With that, Kees moved on to work with another Crabs player, another hands-on experience for Humboldt’s uniquely qualified athletic trainer.