For 41 years, Don Tillson was a constant at Bishop O’Connell High School as a physical education teacher, a track and field coach and perhaps best known as the head athletic trainer.
He taught CPR to dozens at the school, taught sports-medicine classes, driver’s education, worked in the attendance office and was a bike-club moderator.
As the trainer, Tillson, hired in 1978, was everywhere, at each home and many away sporting events taking care and looking after O’Connell’s athletes. Tillson was always on the job, sometimes literally – actually living in a small room at the school for two years early during his tenure.
He only used sick leave once, and that was in 2017 missing just a week because of a detached retina. Tillson soon was riding his bike to work again, which he often did during nice weather.
This past summer, Tillson’s time ended at O’Connell when he retired from his positions. The 64-year-old is still around some, but as a spectator at events, not in an official capacity.
“You had to have the right mentality to do that kind of work,” Tillson said of being a trainer. “It’s like if it’s a game. You have to be ready and prepared.”
A graduate of Old Dominion University (undergrad in health and physical education) and the University of Virginia (masters in sports medicine), Tillson said he misses some of the people and working with student trainers. He does not miss the long hours and working nights and weekends that the job demanded.
Tillson certainly doesn’t miss the early years, when the O’Connell training room was squeezed inside of a small, unairconditioned gymnasium closet. He eventually designed and equipped the current athletic training room in a much bigger space.
“The best part of the job was working with the student trainers and training them,” Tillson said. “I had a lot of great students help out. Sometimes I’d recruit them from my P.E. classes.”
During his years at O’Connell, Tillson figures he taped more than 31,000 ankles and other joints and tended to more than 49,000 various injuries. By administering or helping with onsite CPR on two occasions at the school, he also helped saved two lives, something he never forgets. Tillson was a pioneer in athletic training in various ways, setting up programs and consulting on others.
The worst injury he treated came during a 1987 football game when an O’Connell player suffered a fractured femur that caused his knee to turned sideways and downward.
For all of his efforts, Tillson was inducted into O’Connell’s athletic hall of fame.
For years at various locations, Tillson has at times come across former students or athletes he was involved with at O’Connell.
“My family knows that we don’t go anywhere in public without seeing someone that went to O’Connell and says ‘hi’ to me,” Tillson said. “Once, at a restaurant a few years ago, a father and daughter came over to our table. The father didn’t want to bother us, but the daughter insisted. You know what? I taught both of them. That in a way sums up 41 years at O’Connell.”
Now that he’s retired and his lifestyle has changed, Tillson, who graduated from O’Connell in 1973, spends a lot of his time doing various volunteer work, some in emergency preparedness. He continues as a Red Cross instructor in first aid and CPR.