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Gysland living her dream as a NFL athletic trainer

FARGO -- Ada, Minn., resident Bette Gysland, 89, remembers a few years ago asking her granddaughter Sonia Gysland what kind of fleece blanket she wanted.

"She said Vikings," said Bette, who eventually stitched a Vikings blanket.

On Sunday, Sonia -- the only full-time female athletic trainer in the NFL -- will be stitching up the wounds of the Pittsburgh Steelers in London against the Minnesota Vikings.

"It just goes to show that anybody can accomplish what they desire to do," Bette said about Sonia. "They just have to work at it."

Running back Baron Batch was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft in 2011 by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Batch tore his ACL during training camp in August of 2011 and missed the entire season. He returned in October of 2012, was released in November of that same year and cut again this season in August after having been re-signed. He's played in 12 games, rushed for 49 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries and caught four passes for 31 yards.

To most people, the name Baron Batch means nothing. His NFL career has only been 12 games.

For the 29-year-old Gysland, those 12 games are why she does what she does.

"He was the first player who I rehabbed," Sonia said. "He didn't play at all that first season, but the second season it was really great to see him play. After every game, he would come over and shake my hand and say, 'Thank you.' Those things make it all worth it."

The timeline for an athletic injury is seemingly always when they get hurt and when they return. The time between, the often ignored portion, is Gysland's. She is the one running to the bone-crunching hits to which the world cringes. She stares at the scenes the audience turns away from.

"As an athletic trainer, you're trained to be prepared for anything and any situation," Sonia said. "We treat the injuries, we do hydration and all that, but a lot of it is the emergency care in the case of traumatic injuries."

In fact, it was in hearing the hits in a football game between the University of North Carolina and the University of Miami during her graduate assistantship at UNC that Sonia knew she was where she was supposed to be. She recalls the game as if she's telling an old war story.

"It was organized chaos," Sonia said. "It was the hardest-hitting football game I've ever witnessed. You could hear the collisions on the other side of the field as if they were right next to you. Our guys were going down right and left."

UNC came back and won 28-24 on the road, and then-coach Butch Davis gave the game ball to the head athletic trainer for the athletic training staff.

"That's one moment that sticks out as to why I love what I do," Gysland said.

Wayne Gysland, Sonia's father and a Hopkins (Minn.) High School graduate, jokingly calls Sonia the "ultimate turncoat." She got her undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin and later interned at Ohio State University. She got her graduate degree from the University of North Carolina and her first job at Duke. Now, the girl who played soccer and ran track from third grade until she graduated high school in Eagan, is the reason her parents have turned on their Minnesota Vikings.

Well, that among other things.

"It's the loser bowl," Wayne said of the Steelers-Vikings matchup. "They pay her, so we wear black and gold instead of purple and gold."

It isn't as though Wayne doesn't have fun with it.

"I always tell people one of my kids is a Pittsburgh Steeler and they always say, 'I didn't know your son played football,'" Wayne said.

Sonia is used to that perception, considering she's the second full-time athletic trainer in NFL history.

"I'm used to being one of the few girls in a male-dominated environment," Sonia said. "I've never been a girly girl, so I'm pretty comfortable among the guys."

Sonia worked under Ariko Iso, the first full-time female athletic trainer in the NFL, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and took over her position when Iso left to be head athletic trainer at Oregon State. A 2002 USA Today story on Iso stated 47.9 percent of the 30,207 members of the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) are women. As of today, 53 percent are women.

"I know it's a big deal, but at the end of the day, it's my job, and I've worked very hard to get where I am," Sonia said. "I'm just doing my job. I'm just another athletic trainer."

Considering Sonia had Division II schools looking at her for soccer, it could very easily be a different story.

"In soccer they hit the ball with their heads," a horrified Lupe Gysland -- Sonia's mother -- said. "I'm glad she's on the other side."

Lupe is more than happy to turn her allegiances to the Steelers even if they take Sonia away from her essentially every day from July until January.

"We have to cheer for the Steelers," Lupe said. "I'm a Vikings fan, but when they face each other, we have to go with the Steelers.

It isn't exactly easy for Sonia either.

"Going to London, I work for the Steelers and I'm caring for my players and I want us to do the best that we can," Sonia said. "It will be weird seeing purple on the other sideline."

Grandma stays in the middle ground when it comes to who to root for.

"It doesn't make any difference," Bette said. "The reason we really watch is to see Sonia."