RAHWAY, NJ — When Seton Hall University’s men’s soccer team defeated top-seeded Georgetown 2-1 and captured the Big East Tournament for the first time in 30 years, it earned its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2005. The team also defeated Air Force 2-1, earning a berth in the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament Sweet 16. In a college season unlike any other, one of the unsung heroes was Rahway resident and certified athletic trainer Pawel Bankowski.
Bankowski served as the team’s athletic trainer this season. Originally from Edison, he moved to Rahway after getting married in 2019. Bankowski grew up playing sports but knew being a professional athlete wasn’t an option for him. Athletic training then sparked his curiosity.
“The opportunity to work at Seton Hall came through the Matthew J. Morahan Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, where I work full time,” Bankowski said on Saturday, May 15. “Seton Hall Sports Medicine partnered with our center, due to fall season postponement into the spring. Myself and another colleague from Barnabas joined in to help and make the spring season as healthy and successful as we could. In January 2021, I was assigned to the men’s soccer team. This opportunity was really exciting for me, since soccer was a large part of my life growing up. Being an addition to a Division 1 team is every trainer’s dream. The athletes work hard, and you can see how all of our efforts culminated into a very successful year.”
One of the responsibilities of an athletic trainer is getting athletes prepped for practices and games, explained Bankowski. His efforts included daily treatments, rehabilitation, injury prevention, taping and much more. Before practice started, he had to work with the athletes on their injury rehabilitation and treatments to help them get back on the field and perform at a high level. He also had to make medical decisions as to what was best for the players to get back on the field safely. These responsibilities included setting up doctor appointments and making sure that the players were referred to the right doctors when needed. Traveling with the team was also an important part of the job, to ensure that they got the best care possible on the road during away games.
“Working during the COVID-19 era was definitely a difficult one, because a lot of adjustments had to be made,” Bankowski said. “As athletic trainers, we are used to spending a lot of time with our athletes for rehab, treatments and, this year, we had to limit the amount of time we spent with each athlete because of COVID contacts. We had to spend less time in the athletic training facility and more time out on the field, to get everyone ready for practice and games. This also forced me to get more creative, since I was not always able to use the equipment needed for rehab or treatment.”
Along with the team’s accomplishments came hardships as well, but Bankowski identified those setbacks as adjustments. Being an athletic trainer for an NCAA tournament team proved an incredible experience, he said, as he always used to watch the NCAA tournaments on television and never thought he’d be part of one. He said he was able to connect with the men’s soccer team, as they trusted him to take care of their injuries and well-being throughout the season. He said they were a great group of guys and a lot of fun to be with.
“I had to make sure that none of them felt neglected, since the AT facility was not always available to them,” he continued. “I had to supplement that by speaking with them on the phone or texting when they needed something, so I could try and help them. … I had to work longer hours at times and travel with the team. Being away from my family for multiple days was difficult.”
Bankowski said he was grateful for the opportunity he had and that the team appreciated everything he did for them, but he didn’t think of himself as an unsung hero.
“I view myself more as an extension of the soccer team and the sports medicine at Seton Hall,” he said. “Everyone involved in the success this season played an important role. I’m grateful for the Morahan Center at Saint Barnabas, who gave me the opportunity to have this experience. I love being an athletic trainer, and I hope success like this can bring more recognition to our profession, because there are many great athletic trainers who work so hard every year, even when the sports team does not have a winning season. A winning season is definitely a nice benefit, but keeping our athletes healthy and performing well is what we strive for.”
Facing off against Virginia Tech in the first NCAA tournament game on Thursday, May 6, Seton Hall was victorious once again. Bankowski said it was “one of the most nerve-racking games we had all season. During that game, we were down twice, but our team managed to come back, tie the game and eventually win on penalty kicks. Our team never gave up all season and always fought hard to the finish every game. That type of grit helped them to make these comebacks and win games throughout the season.”
Diana Toto, the director of both Sports Medicine and Business Development for Saint Barnabas Medical Center and the Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center for Athletes at RWJBarnabas Health, said Bankowski’s empathic ability and adaptability with any team has not gone unnoticed, adding she thought the team had gotten this far due to his unwavering dedication.
“Pawel puts athletic care first on every level,” Toto said on Monday, May 17. “He can adapt to work with any team of professionals and always prioritizes the best interest of every athlete, their safety and their care. His empathy toward every athlete and their injuries and how he relates to them individually builds trust with each athlete and their family that truly goes beyond expectations.
“The team’s ability to stay on the field and stay healthy is in the hands of the medical team. This often starts with the athletic trainer as the first responder,” she continued. “They work with each athlete throughout the course of their injury, overlapping with multidisciplinary approaches with the team physicians to provide a plan of care that is individualized. Through this approach, the athletic trainer has every athlete’s goals for recovery in mind, to return them to safe competition. The trust an athletic trainer builds with their athlete allows them to engage in appropriate treatment plans to get their athlete back on the field with their team, as well as assist in accelerating the recovery process.”
Toto said Bankowski’s commitment to Seton Hall athletics this past season was a true commitment to the existing partnership between Seton Hall University and RWJBarnabas Health.
“Saint Barnabas Medical Center provided two athletic trainers to the Seton Hall University Athletic Program in a time of the pandemic during the 2021 spring season,” she continued. “With consolidated sports seasons, dynamic schedules and a very challenging athletic year, the additional support athletic trainers were able to offer Seton Hall athletics was something our team was honored to do. Pawel took the opportunity as an honor and not only supported his work but, by the end of the season, truly became part of the team.”
Seton Hall Director of Sports Medicine Anthony J. Testa said Seton Hall was grateful for Bankowski and his intense work ethic.
“In a short time, Pawel blended in with our staff and endeared himself to our athletes and staff, through his commitment and hard work,” Testa said on Monday, May 17. “He shared in the common goal of success for our student athletes, while never wavered in his commitment to their health and well-being. We at Seton Hall are very grateful to him and his family and to RWJBarnabas Health for the time and effort Pawel gave to our men’s soccer team over this very special season.”
Photos Courtesy of Pawel Bankowski