Mike Sola Looks Back on 37 Years at SBVC

Mike Sola Looks Back on 37 Years at SBVC

Michael Sola, the man who has stewarded San Bernardino Valley College athletes through injuries large and small for 37 years, is officially closing out his career as the head trainer at the school this week.

“I have had the best seat in the house through many great moments over the years,” Sola said. “I feel I’ve lived a blessed life to do what I have done for as many years as I have.”

A graduate of California State University, Long Beach in 1978, Sola worked for Cerritos College, Marina High School, St. Paul High School and the NBA Summer League before landing at SBVC in 1982. His first season at SBVC was a monumental one, as the SBVC football team completed its only undefeated and untied season in its history, finishing 11-0 to win the state championship.

Over the years, Sola has treated thousands of athletes who have come through the doors at SBVC, making friends of some of the greatest athletes in school history. Among the athletes Sola has dealt with over the years are school Hall of Famers such as current Dodgers’ third-base coach Dino Ebel and international track star Tyree Washington.

Outside of his work at SBVC, Sola has been active at sporting events big and small across Southern California and the world. He worked as an athletic trainer during the 1984 Olympics (covering soccer, pistol shooting and the opening and closing ceremonies), for the US Track and Field Team in 1985, at the US Olympic Festival in 1986, and the 1994 FIFA World Cup. He has continued to work at several basketball camps, club soccer tournaments and high school events in his spare time.

Born in Camaguey, Cuba, Sola moved to Cicero, Illinois, as a teen. He began his training career in high school, then as a volunteer at Morton (Ill.) College and Northeastern Illinois University. He later got his Master’s Degree from Azusa Pacific University in 1994.

Over the years, the SBVC student-trainers have benefited from Sola’s expertise. He has sent about 400 student-trainers on to four-year programs over the years, with several taking his lessons into a career in training and kinesiology-based fields. Besides preparing the students for the job on the field, he has helped them transfer to schools of their choice across the country by using his numerous contacts he has made over the years.

Besides his work in the training room, Sola has been active with other projects. He teaches an ROP training class at Colton High School – many of the students get on-the-job experience at SBVC games. He has hosted television and radio shows at KVCR and written a syndicated column.

He is also an advocate for the critical role that trainers play for athletes at every age group and skill level. The role of trainer, to Sola, is to make sure that an athlete is physically and mentally able to compete. And that means taking extra time off the field for those with head injuries.

Sola also works to raise awareness of autism in his work. It is a cause close to his heart, as his son Emilio is on the spectrum. Sola helps host World Autism Awareness events at SBVC baseball and softball games in April each year, with Emilio throwing out the first pitch before a game from each sport.

After retirement, Sola plans to remain busy. He will continue to work as a trainer at local sporting events – especially club soccer tournaments at the San Bernardino Soccer Complex. He is planning on launching his own drone photography business as well as spending more time on the golf course.

As Mike’s career officially comes to a close, he recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Sports Information Specialist Bill Norris to look back on his career, how much the school and community has changed and the path he took to become the person and trainer he became.

37 years ago, 1982, when you first interviewed for this job, did you think you would still be here 37 years later?

No, absolutely not. I had allusions of grandeur just like any young, recently certified athletic trainer. I thought the community college situation was one that was appealing, having worked the high school level and having worked as an interim trainer at Cerritos College. I found that very interesting and a very good environment. It’s funny, I wasn’t even going to apply for the job. It just seems to be a recurring pattern here that some things are meant to be in life.  At the last second, I’ll never forget, at Marina High School, Andy Dunigan – he’s my athletic director – he says by the way, there’s a job opening at San Bernardino Valley College. And I said, ‘eh, San Bernardino? I live in Huntington Beach.’ I was caught in the microcosm of the beach life and all that stuff, and not thinking about the future. So, he said “You’re foolish if you don’t apply for this.” And I kind of respected what he had to say. So I went over and dusted up my resume, fired up a cover letter – we didn’t have computers in those days, by the way, that shows my age, I guess – and I run over to a FedEx store and next day delivery, forked out 10-15 bucks and sent it and apply for the job. And came in here without any expectations of getting this job at all. I just came in with the idea of, it will be a good experience, but I don’t really want to leave Marina, Huntington Beach, that nice little world I was living in, and it turned out to be one of the big time life changing decisions in my life.

That has to be a culture thing, too. Because here you’re born in Cuba, and then you go from Cuba, the tropics, to the cold of Illinois, and then you come west, straight to the beach. How is that culturally for you?

In between, I attended Long Beach State. The Long Beach State 49ers – not the Sharks, sorry I have to throw that in there. I had a great time there. I lived at the time I lived in Huntington Park with my aunt, who was my surrogate mom. We lived in this small apartment. She worked as an underwriter. Took two busses to West Los Angeles to work for her insurance company, for which she got a transfer. I took two busses just to get to Long Beach State. All the way down past Compton, Lynwood, North Long Beach, then switched over to another bus past Wilson High School to get to Long Beach State. I found out that during the day, it’s OK, it’s a long ride. Taking the same bus at night in those neighborhoods was an entirely different attention. I started taking the freeway flyer all the way to downtown LA and then coming back and even walking back to our little rented house – it was small, like an apartment. It was a different experience. That’s when I learned the value of loans. One day my aunt told me, “Go to the financial aid office and get every possible financial aid loan that you could get.” In those days, obviously, the rules were a lot different, and I got a stack, almost the size of a Bible, of loans. And I got back, and that night, she – she was a very wise woman, a big influence in my life obviously – she had all these pencils set up, she had take out food, all these pencils, all these papers and her income tax filing and I said “What is this for?” She said, “As soon as you finish your homework, you’re going to finish all those applications.” I spent hours and hours applying, and I got just enough money to get my first car. It was a Toyota Corona and life changed, life changed completely after that for the better.

So what was the shock of coming from that LA, beach area out to the Inland Empire? Because this way different time out here.

And we were not looked at as the pearl of Southern California. A lot of people didn’t look very favorably in the San Bernardino, Riverside area. You were going into an unknown, hostile territory where things were, there was just stigma that people here were all criminals. Anybody who was a lowlife lived out there. Of course, that was the furthest from the truth. Met some great friends here, met some wonderful people that I still call friends. It was a life changer coming over here. It was a little different. Every weekend, at first it was a little difficult, I stayed with the late Jimmy Paulson, he let me stay at his house, slept on his sofa. Then when Friday came along (snaps fingers), I just bolted and headed back to the beach. I didn’t quite make the adjustment right away. Then things started to change for the better. Getting to know the area, getting to know the surrounding communities, living up in Crestline in the mountains – I didn’t realize, wow, this is really a very diverse, cool region of Southern California. It was rather unique.

What was it like watching this area change and grow and build into what it is now?

To say night and day would be absolutely the understatement of the century. From our old facilities to what we have now. One of the biggest moments, I think, was when the landscape completely changed. I think it was years ago when we had the CIF championship game between Fontana High School and San Gorgonio High School. … They played in Anaheim, and they had 35, 40,000 people there and that’s when it started. Before it was this beach and Orange County domination. You would not come close to that plateau. You look at the mega malls now, you look at the housing, you look at all the communities that have developed, it’s an amazing change. It’s exceeded my expectations, especially here.

You look around the campus and you see a lot of new buildings, including the one we’re sitting in now. Could you have imagined this area growing to the point that we have the facilities we have now here?

I hoped in my dreams, I really did, I’m not lying to you. I hoped in my dreams that something would like this would come down the pike. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine these kind of facilities. It’s bittersweet, because I spent a ton of time in the old buildings, and goodness gracious, when some of the high schools in the area have better facilities than a community college, it’s time for a change. This is like a small college atmosphere here, a four-year school. It’s incredible, it really is.

You talk about your aunt, how much of a role did she have getting you here, getting you where you are at?

Everything. Everything. My aunt was a former nun, a woman of tremendous religious conviction. I lost my mom to breast cancer, her sister, when I was a young kid. And I think they made a promise to each other to take care of me. She gave up that part of her faith, became a normal person. She had a PhD in mathematics. I mean this is a very … she was a piano teacher, she was a major in business and trigonometry. She had a PhD in trigonometry. I can’t even spell trigonometry. But she worked. She only asked one of thing of me, one simple thing, she said: Just have good grades, graduate from high school, get a college degree. I ask for nothing else. I wanted to play sports, which I did in high school. A lot of times, I would go to practice, she would get up early on Saturday mornings, and I would be going to practice and she would be going somewhere else. I could never ask her where she went, and she would never tell me. I found out later on that she would go to houses to be the cleaning lady. Here’s somebody with a PhD that is a cleaning lady, doing this – it’s unfathomable. Somebody with that much education would be doing this just so I could go to school, just so I could play sports, be involved in sports and not have to worry about getting a second job or something that would curtail my academic activity.

Did she get to see you reach your success?

Oh, absolutely. Three or four of the proudest moments in my life. First, when I graduated from college. The second one, when I got my Master’s Degree from Azusa Pacific, that was another one. But the one that I really am proudest of is when I was selected to the World Cup and the Olympics before that in 84. She got a big kick out of that. I got her some souveneirs. I kept asking her if she wanted to go to the evnets, but she said, “No, it’s too many people. I’ll watch it on TV.” She knew I was out there on the floor of the opening ceremonies when Rafer Johnson lit up the Olympic torch in 84 at the Coliseum. I’m glad that she got … to me that’s my way of saying thanks to her. I told her many times. In fact, at my house I have a – she was an accomplished artist, a painter. She was an extraordinary woman. Not only could she musically play the piano, but she could also paint. I’ve often thought of selling some of her paintings, but I wouldn’t do that. She had a painting she gave me which the World Cup logo on the top and on the bottom, it’s the Olympic logo. I still have that painting framed and hanging in my man cave. I look at it any time I want to put things in perspective.

Talk about getting the chance to be involved with the Olympics, the World Cup. These are worldwide events.

Everybody asks me the question, how did you get there? And honest to God, I just applied. I just applied and it tells people that if you don’t try … Just like anything else, I sent it out and went to the interview. It was one of the moments, you see them in the movies, you get the call or get the letter in my old office and I saw the Olympic logo on it, and I accepted the fact that this is the Olympics, “I’m not going to sniff that place.” And I remember opening it carefully, because I’m going to keep the letter because it’s going to be a collector’s item. I still have that letter framed and it says “Congratulations, you’ve been selected as a coordinator for the soccer venue of the 84 Olympic Games.” And I really truly, I fell off my chair and landed on the ground. And I just stood there, and I think my trainers at the time kind of just looked and came over, and he goes “Mike, are you OK?” and I was just staring straight ahead, I was in utter shock. It’s beyond words. I know it’s easy to say that. But people need to understand that the Olympic games, the competition is the focus of all the athletes in the world, but all the stuff that goes on the host city. The cultural events, the food festival, the arts festival, all the bazillion different things that goes on, and the way the city decorated itself to host, it’s something you never forget. It’s special. It went way too fast.

I can imagine the different people at an event like that. It’s just amazing.

I said it before in another interview, Rafer Johnson – which we didn’t know, we did the rehearsal the day before – Rafer Johnson ran from me about five feet away, he went right by me with that Olympic flame and 100,000 people in the Coliseum going nuts. That’s something you don’t see. Mary Lou Retton gave us a high five when she went by. It opened up so many doors. It opened up a year later, I got to go to Germany with the US Track and Field team, and that was an unbelievable experience as well. It opened up so many doors. But the main thing, it opened up a lot of my former student trainers’ doors career wise. You put that on your resume, it packs a lot of power.

Obviously, you get here in ’82, first thing you do is win a football championship. You don’t, but the team does.

That was a dream team. You know, a lot of times, it’s like a supernova. We had another great team in 92, and another one that everybody’s forgotten is the team that beat Bakersfield at the Potato Bowl (in 1993) in Bakersfield – and they were going for a national championship. And that team, it’s kind of sad because you get lost in the greatness of 82 and 92 right behind them, it’s kind of like a bar has been set so high that teams with one loss are not in the same echelon as those two teams. Those are the two greatest teams. And the 82 guys will always remind the 92 team that we were unbeaten, untied. But it was the way they did it. To go to Riverside City College, to beat an excellent RCC team at their place. It was like we were the sacrificial lambs. We were undefeated – everybody that we played, the coaches had a poll and they thought we were going to get our butts kicked in. And that Saturday, it was a good as an event as I’ve seen in this area. San Bernardino versus Riverside in a classic athletic competition. That was an amazing experience.

So many athletes have come through here, obviously people like Dino and Tyree and people like that. What part of the job is the most satisfying for you? Is it the players, the athletes?

Just seeing players obviously on television and you say they came from Valley. The one I get the biggest kick of is when alumni come back and say hello. And you ask them what’s going on, are you here because you need something. But no, they say they just wanted to come by and say hi. I was in the area. For instance, it’s the little things, like Craig Newsome, who I’ve known since he was a little kid in Pop Warner. You could tell then. Craig was a heck of a player, a great athlete. I’ll just never forget when he showed up, it’s the little things, that you get a bond with an athlete, it’s priceless. He showed up with a check from the National Football League, and I just remember the zeroes, because he was about to go to the bank with his million dollar bonus for being the number one pick of the Green Bay Packers. I just remember the zeroes. It just kept going. And when he signed with the Packers, he brought me a brand new Green Bay Packer hat, and he autographed it. And I still have that. And he subsequently won a Super Bowl with the Packers. Seeing the players and the alumni come back is priceless.

We’ve talked about the players, but what about the ones that helped you through the years, the student trainers. What about them? Your job is to take care of the players, but you’re also training people to become trainers. How much of that part of the job is fun?

It can be at times nerve-wracking. Obviously not all of my student trainers were success stories. But I always said you choose to be a success story, or you choose not to be a success story. The ones that I feel bad for, are the ones who just couldn’t make it because they didn’t have support at home. They didn’t get much support into their profession. But the ones that did make it, they’re just different people. I remind them of that, you’re a different person. You’re in a profession where you’re probably not going to be rewarded with millions of dollars like NFL players, but you have to have a passion for it. You have to have a passion. You’re either all-in, or you can’t be halfway or one-third of the way. The biggest disappointment I had in the 37 years here are the student trainers who thought they could do it their way. That thought they could fool the system. They thought they could get away with it. You can’t fool this profession. It exposes you for who you are when you’re doing this. We’ve had a lot of success stories. A lot of certified trainers. We’ve had certified trainers, nurses, doctors, the list goes on and on. That to me is extremely satisfying.

How much has the profession changed?

With Title IX, that’s the first seismic change that occurred. The development of women’s sports, that’s one, that made a big change. The demographics, all the high schools that popped up left and right in Riverside, San Bernardino, that made a change. I think the liability, the fact that a lot of schools are finally getting away from the one person on the staff – or whoever, the buddy of a buddy who doesn’t have a degree, doesn’t have a license, nice people who want to help out – but in a situation of a catastrophic injury, the lawsuit is just going to be devastating. I think what has also changed is the physical therapy clinics, the sports medicine/physical therapy clinics that have popped up. Just the growth and validation of the profession. Athletic training is an allied health profession, it’s no different than nursing, in the eyes of the Congress of the United States, it’s no different. It’s changed night and day.

How about the things you do, as far as things like taping. I have to imagine the concussion protocol type situations have really become a focus of things you have to keep an eye on.

It has changed the whole philosophy and landscape of coaching and athletic training. The days of getting concussed – and I remember teaching the class, and the protocol horrifies me now, but we didn’t know. We didn’t know until Dr. Omalu did that study and he discovered CTE - Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We found out now when a kid gets hit, there’s no negotiation. If you have a concussion, there’s no such thing as a mild, moderate or severe. A concussion with all the signs and all the tests that we do, if you don’t pass those tests, there’s no grey area, you’ve got to come out. I think the biggest change is coaches are starting to realize that law that was passed – California State Law, I always tell people it’s not Mike Sola’s law, it’s AB-25, Google it – if you’re a coach or a medical personnel and you have somebody with a diagnosed concussion, and you willingly neglect your protocol and send them back in and that person gets hurt again – either second-impact syndrome or dies – you are going to be prosecuted criminally. The concussion has changed our whole sports landscape forever. And that’s one of the reasons why athletic trainer – every high school is covering themselves – you don’t want to face that. It’s a no win situation. And any coach that does that really should not be in the profession now a days.

I imagine you could fill a book with stories about some of the coaches, but looking at the ones that are hear now, what do you see for the school going forward?

Where athlete care comes first. And another thing, our athletes are starting to be a little bit more keen. I’m seeing athletes now that always want to ice their injuries after practice, they come in, they want to ice, ice. In the old days, you almost have to grab them by the ear – hey you have a sore knee, tendonitis, ice your knees, you’d have to harp on them. Now these kids are a lot more sensitive to their bodies, a lot more educated. Most of them. There’s still some grey area out there. But the big-time players, they take care of their bodies a lot better. Coaches here, there’s no debate when somebody has head trauma or whatever, it’s a universal thing. First of all, it’s liability, it’s foolish, and it makes your program looks bad, because I don’t think as a parent I would want a coach that would force my kid to go back in with a concussion. Because it’s legal suicide to be honest with you. I don’t see that in our coaching staff, not at all.

We’ve talked about it privately that you’re done after you retire. But come September, you’re going to be standing on a sideline watching a game, if a kid gets hurt, how hard is it going to be from keep from running on the field to help?

The initial gut reaction is going to be to take a step forward. That’s a very good question. I think instinctively, your mother-hen instinct is to take a step forward. But I think they’re going to hire a couple of trainers that are going to be well-educated, well-prepared, and certified. I trust the profession, and I think that first and foremost is to take care of our kids. When I do show up to games, I’ll try to be a supporting fan as much as I can. I have no intention of interfering or meddling with the new person because I remember at one point, I was a new person, and I had my own goals, dreams and aspirations. And all you can do is support that person.

When you walk out the last day, what’s the last thing you want to see at this campus?

Hmmm. The last thing I want to see at this campus? I’m going to look at a 360 degree photograph, and I’m going to look and see what a magnificent, state-of-the-art, second-to-none facility we have. We’re not quite there yet. We still have some work to do, but we’ve got a lot of work that we’ve accomplished. But just to see the modernization of San Bernardino Valley College athletics. That’s the one thing. The last thing I’m going to look at is everything and be thankful, be grateful to see the opportunity to see the metamorphosis of this campus, specifically our athletic department. Where we used to lose kids, because the one thing the parents would say, ‘Well, I’m not sending them to Valley because they have better facilities. I’m not sending them to Valley, because of this or this.’ Well, you can’t say that any more. That’s the biggest thing that I’m going to see. I’ll look back and have some fond memories and be grateful and thankful for what I did, and what I was able to be part of that growth.

Final words?

I thought about if very hard, what was I going to say when I left here. My first thought was Charles Barkley, but rather than that, I’d rather say what the great Walter Payton said about a month or so before his untimely death: “For those of you who have been with me and supported me, may God bless you always. And for those of you who don’t, who don’t like me or whatever, may God bless you as well.” And that’s all.

We will look forward to seeing you back here in the fall as a fan and a supporter of San Bernardino Valley College, and we wish you the best.

Thank you Bill. I had the best seat in the house. I said it before, for a kid that came to this country not knowing any English, except for four or five words, beating the odds. Even having my own aunt tell me you’re studying a rich man’s profession, and I said, ‘yeah, but I love it, tia.’ And she said, OK, and she moved out west with me and supported me above and beyond what a lot of parents would have done. And for those parents who do that God bless you as well, because you’re supporting your kids dream. To wind up here and get to this point, it’s bittersweet. I’m sure I’m going to have to bite my lip at one point before I leave here. I tell all the teams the same thing, don’t settle for conference championships – reach for state championships. As they say in the business, why not us? Why not us? I’ve had the best seat in the house. It’s been quite a thrill. I’ll be back, not as often, but I’ll be back. Valley College is always going to be part of my life.

So, last thing, you say ‘Make your own success story.’ Is Mike Sola a success story?

I always tell kids, don’t apologize for being successful. Be humble, and be thankful. I’ll answer it that way. It’s been a pleasure.