North/South/East/West Xtra: Pittsburgh man headed to Super Bowl
February 5, 2016 12:00 AM
Shaler Area grad Steve Labate, a member of the Carolina Panthers athletic training staff, poses with the NFC championship trophy.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While the Steelers bowed out of the NFL playoffs last month, one Pittsburgh local still is gearing up for Super Bowl 50. Steven Labate of Shaler will be on the Carolina Panthers sideline Sunday when they take on the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Labate, 26, joined the Panthers training staff in April for a one-year internship as a seasonal athletic trainer. He watched the team's full ascent, from the NFL draft to summer workouts to a regular season in which the Panthers won their first 14 games and finished a franchise-best 15-1.
After the Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC championship game Jan. 24, Labate posed for a photo with the team’s six-man training staff, then raised the conference championship trophy.
“It was pretty crazy," he said. “As soon as that clock hit zero at Bank of America Stadium, we all realized everything we'd worked for all year had finally led to our goal of trying to win the Super Bowl. It was an amazing experience, something I'll remember for the rest of my life.”
Since, it has been all work.
“It’s been a circus around here,” Labate said last week after a late night at the Panthers facility.
Labate, a 2008 Shaler Area graduate, first took an interest in athletic training in high school. He played varsity basketball as a junior and senior, and he spent his free time shadowing the school’s athletic trainer Bill Couts.
Labate attended California University of Pennsylvania because of its hands-on athletic-training program and its proximity to home. After his second and third years, he had summer internships helping run Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills training camp.
"It was definitely an eye-opening experience," Labate said. "I wasn't used to the long hours and being away from family. It definitely taught me what athletic training is at the highest level. But I loved every single minute of it.”
Labate’s next stop was at South Dakota State University, where he earned a master’s degree in exercise science and was graduate assistant and athletic trainer for the Jackrabbits football team.
After graduate school, Labate worked 11 months at The Physical Therapy Institute in Warrendale before heading to Charlotte to work for the Panthers. Truth be told, ever since Labate got a taste of the NFL during college, he’d been itching to return.
But the life of an athletic trainer is not always so glamorous. As Labate put it, “What fans see on TV is a very small snapshot of what we do.” Many work days start at 5:30 a.m. and end after 7 p.m. Games kept him away from Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving and New Year’s last year.
“It's definitely taxing on your personal life and family life,” Labate said, “but in the end, after it's all said and done, it's one of the most rewarding things you can do.
“To see an athlete score a touchdown after coming back from shoulder surgery or a torn ACL is something that'll always put a smile on an athletic trainer's face. That's why athletic trainers really love this profession so much: you get to help someone, and you're around them so much that they become family."
What’s next after the Super Bowl? Labate would be happy to stay with the Panthers once his internship ends in May, but he’d also like to come back home to Pittsburgh eventually and work in sports medicine.
“Pittsburgh will always be home to me, no matter where I go," Labate said. "It holds a special place in my heart and will continue to forever.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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