It’s tough to hear. The national anthem singer is warming up on the Rogers Centre field in Toronto. His deep voice bellows “O’ER THE RAAAMPARTS” through the overhead speakers. ¶ Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp interrupts a conversation happening behind the dugout: “You doing an interview?” he asks. Sue Falsone snaps: “Maybe.” ¶ “Come talk to me; I’ll tell you the real story,” Kemp directs a reporter. “I’m just playing. She’s great.” ¶ Falsone laughs. “Goofball.” ¶ Kemp might be among the finest major league baseball players, but he’s just one of Sue Falsone’s boys. ¶ “I spend my day taking care of 25 boys,” she said. ¶ If it seems unusual, that’s because it is – Falsone is the first female head athletic trainer of a professional sports team. And she’s proud to call Buffalo her hometown. ¶ The Dodgers’ trainer, who graduated from Kenmore West High School and Daemen College, sat down with The News during Los Angeles’ series in Toronto last month. ¶ Falsone sports Dodgers royal blue head to toe, blond bangs and a warm smile.
She’ll admit she’s 39 years old now, but she looks closer to her mid-20s. She hangs on every word like it’s the most interesting one she’s heard all day.
While people tell her she’s a hero, Falsone says, “It’s just my job.” To others, though, she is a pioneer. She has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and USA Today.
“It was a huge deal when it first came out, with the announcement and how many messages – Facebook messages and Twitter and LinkedIn messages, snail mail letters to my places of work from young girls or dads,” Falsone said, her voice fading behind the loud crack of a bat. “Like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a daughter. We always told her she could never do sports medicine but now she can.’ When you start to hear stories like that, you’re like, man, that’s pretty cool.”
Her support has been as strong in Buffalo as anywhere. Daemen made her a distinguished alumna in 2009, and this year she’s being inducted to Kenmore West’s athletic hall of fame. Falsone lives in Los Angeles during the season and Phoenix during the offseason, and while she’s a Buffalo girl at heart, the city-to-city travel is one of her favorite parts of her job.
“The people from Buffalo, it doesn’t matter where I go in the country – if you meet someone from Buffalo, you’re like instant friends,” she said. “There’s just nothing like it and I’m not saying that” just to sound good, she said. “It just is really true.”
Falsone’s mother, Louise, lives in Kenmore.
“She was kind of like a tomboy,” the 70-year-old Louise recalled of her daughter’s childhood. “She always said she wanted to work for the Buffalo Bills. She wanted to be a trainer, and I kind of steered her into going toward physical therapy. I said, ‘You can do both. You can go the physical therapy route or you can go the athletic trainer route when you have that.’
“The fact that she does this sort of work is very rewarding to her, and so she’s happy to be doing something she loves – that makes me, as a mother, happy.”
Falsone wanted to be a surgeon in high school, but she fell in love with physical therapy at Daemen after her mom suggested pursuing it.
She got a job at a clinic in Raleigh, N.C., after graduation and met an athletic trainer there who told her about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s graduate degree, which was essentially a double major in human movement science and sports medicine. She decided to check it out.
From that point on, Falsone’s path is remarkable and borderline unbelievable.
She describes landing her gig with the Dodgers as “absolute happenstance,” but it wasn’t happenstance that put her in position.
It was a move inspired by either courage or craziness, or perhaps a mixture of the two.
Falsone was 26 and buried in student loans by the time she had earned her master’s from UNC, and she was craving change – extreme change. She calls it “a weird time in my life.”
So she did something extreme: She packed up and moved to Phoenix with a friend who was feeling just as weird as she was.
Louise, her mother, says of the move: “To me, it seemed like it was the other side of the world, let alone the other side of the country.”
Another problem: The first month she was there, Falsone wasn’t licensed to practice in Arizona and couldn’t get a job.
“I didn’t have a job or anything, had never been to Phoenix,” Falsone said. “Literally, it said Phoenix City Limits, and we pulled off at the first or second exit. We drove for a little bit and there was an apartment complex right there. We stayed in a hotel the first night, got an apartment the next day and set up bank accounts the day after that.”
Falsone went west with $800 in her pocket. Then she and her friend, Martha, spent $250 on tickets to a Billy Joel and Elton John concert. (To this day, she’ll tell you it was worth it.) Now she can laugh about it.
“I was like, ‘We have no money! We have no money and no jobs and we’re spending $250 on concert tickets?’ ” Falsone said. “But it all worked out.”
Falsone, however, did need money. Badly.
She had no idea her deliverance would start with Nomar Garciaparra.
Falsone was reading an article on the former Boston Red Sox star shortstop and saw he trained at Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Ariz. She went to the library to find the location.
“We didn’t have computers,” she said.
As it turned out, Athletes’ Performance was a mere 10 minutes from where she was living in Chandler. Falsone is now close friends with the woman who was the administrative assistant there at the time, but their friendship didn’t get off to a fast start when Falsone called inquiring about a job.
“She just basically hung up on me,” Falsone said. “She was like, ‘We just opened; you’re going to have to call back.’ I was like, ‘I’ll fax you my resume,’ and she was like, ‘We don’t have our fax set up.’ ”
So Falsone drove to see the facility in person. She took a tour, started hanging out with the coaches and offered to volunteer daily for free, which she did from June to September, when she was offered a job. During those four months, she worked part-time at an outpatient orthopedic clinic called Physiotherapy to pay her bills and earned just enough money to get by.
Athletes’ Performance was then a start-up company, and Falsone was hired as the seventh employee. It has since grown to more than 300 employees, and she is the vice president.
In 2006, the Dodgers approached Athletes’ Performance about forming a partnership. Falsone met the team’s then-athletic trainer, Stan Conte (now Los Angeles’ vice president of medical services), and started as a consultant. She worked her way up to assisting at 120 of the 162 games per year.
Falsone was planning to take a step back from her role with the Dodgers in 2011 and go back to working more at Athletes’ Performance when Conte called.
“They had some changes in the medical staff, and he talked about, ‘What would it look like if you were the head athletic trainer? How would that work?’ ” Falsone said.
Of course, she accepted, and the rest is history-making. While Falsone’s promotion received nationwide acclaim, some people were dubious.
A female trainer in the men’s locker room? Isn’t that strange?
“I hang out in the training room; I don’t hang out in the clubhouse,” she said. “Obviously I have to go in there at times, but that’s where they’re showering, that’s where they’re changing. So if I have to go in there, I do what I need to do and then I get out. Just like they don’t walk into the training room naked because they know that’s where I am, so there’s just a mutual respect there.
“Bottom line: When an athlete’s hurt, they just want to feel better, and if you can help them, they don’t care what race or religion you are. They just want to be able to play their sport.”
Her mother, too, doesn’t think it’s all that odd.
“I never really gave that much of a thought, to be honest with you,” Louise said. “I kid the guys and say, ‘Now remember: She’s my child. Look after her.’ I do say that.”
Louise says her daughter was always into sports as a kid, but Falsone laughs when she recalls her athletic experience. She did synchronized swimming from ages 7 to 14. After that?
“I played soccer; I was horrible,” she said of her time at Kenmore West. “I spent my life in the pool, so I never developed any hand-eye coordination. I never developed any fast-twitch muscle fibers. I was terrible at soccer. I ran track my freshman year. I was super slow. I did the high jump and let my knees drop. I broke my nose.”
So, with that lack of athletic ability, how does she demonstrate proper form to professional baseball players?
“I’ve got a good air swing, so I can talk to the guys like I look like I know what I’m talking about,” she said, smiling. “You can’t throw like a girl when you’re talking to them, so I’ve practiced those moves a little bit just to look cool enough to get by.”
Louise, an Eden native, makes sure she gets to at least four games a year, and she stays with Falsone in Phoenix during spring training.
When she isn’t at the games, Louise is watching on the MLB Network or on the MLB app on her iPad. She’s always looking for her daughter.
“My mom always is like, ‘Why don’t they show you more?’ ” Falsone said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, you’re the only one in the country watching to see me. I promise.’ She’s so cute.”
For Falsone, the hardest part of being away – aside from missing her mother (her father passed away nine years ago) – is living without Buffalo food.
“I think she has one of the pizzerias on her speed dial,” Louise said.
She isn’t kidding.
“Oh my gosh, the food. Buffalo just has the best food ever,” Falsone gushed. “Obviously Duff’s – who doesn’t love Duff’s? Bocce’s Pizza. Mike’s Subs, I’ve got to get a chicken finger sub. Obviously Anderson’s, you’ve got to get a beef on weck.
“Usually I land in Buffalo for Christmas; I call my mom and tell her I landed; I call Bocce’s Pizza; I order half a pepperoni pizza. I get my luggage, get in the car with my mom, pick up the pizza and then we go home and catch up.”
Falsone wasn’t a huge baseball fan growing up, but she did go to a few Bisons games and she’s a die-hard Sabres and Bills fan. “It really hasn’t wavered,” she said of her Buffalo loyalties.
Falsone is single and does not have kids. She jokingly adds that she has no plants or animals, either. She has a tough enough time taking care of her 25 boys – but at the same time, their recovery makes for the best part of her job.
“The whole reason you do this is to get your athletes back out on the field, so any time you have somebody come off the DL or you’re able to get them back on the field, that’s a huge reward,” Falsone said. “That’s why we do it. That’s still for me, when a guy comes off the DL and is able to play his sport and be out there and feel good doing it, that’s really the best part.”
As for Matt Kemp? He went on the disabled list the day after that interview and has been there since.
With the Dodgers jockeying for playoff position, they’re counting on one of their most valuable members to come through when it matters most – and Kemp, too.