After 15 years of serving as the football team physician for his alma matter, Monroe High School, Dr. Phillip Clevenger walked away thinking that he was completely done being on the sidelines for high school football games.
Then two years later, in 1999, his son Drew became head coach at St. Ansgar High School. And just like that, he was back in the game.
During halftime festivities of the Class 2A boys’ state championship basketball game March 8 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, he was honored by the Iowa High School Athletic Association with the Sports Medicine Award.
“It was a nice honor for many, many years of service to two different school communities,” he said. “It was a nice honor.”
Clevenger first got started in sports medicine during his residency in Des Moines.
“There was an orthopedist in Des Moines who helped train me and he was involved in team sports as a team physician,” Clevenger said. “And he just challenged a bunch of us one day and said, ‘Why don’t you guys get out there?’ And I raised my hand and said, ‘I want to do it.’”
“So I went wet with him to a couple of games when I was a resident,” Clevenger continued. “Then I was actually living in Monroe, which is my hometown and where I grew up and I played sports back in the 1960s. I approached the coach, who I had known as a patient and asked would he be interested in having someone on the sidelines and he said sure.”
Clevenger tended to the players from 1982, back when they were the Monroe Wildcats, to well past the merger when they became the Prairie City-Monroe Mustangs in 1991. He finally stepped aside in 1997, until his son became a head coach.
“We were just talking one day, and I don’t know if he brought it up or if I brought it up that he didn’t have a trainer or anyone on the sidelines,” Clevenger said. “We agreed that I would come up and help him out.”
Since 1999, Clevenger has served the Saints as the team doctor and has seen it all happen on the field.
“Loss of consciousness, broken bones, dislocated fingers etc., but never anything catastrophic,” Clevenger said. “Quite a few concussions. I think it’s great (the NFL’s stance on head injuries). I’m sure in years past and even since I’ve been in this it’s been underdiagnosed.”
Clevenger mentioned that players try to go back in the game hurt all of time, something he doesn’t tolerate under his watch.
“First of all I give their helmet to one of the sideline girls,” Clevenger said. “When kids get injured they’re hyped up and always want to go back. But my job is to help them be rational about it and to not just look at the next quarter of a game, but the season and their life, really.”
In 13 seasons with the Saints, Clevenger has only missed three games, including the playoffs. Every Friday in the fall, Clevenger and his wife Caren, make the 136-mile trek to St. Ansgar for the home games — sometimes even farther for road games.
He still doesn’t know who nominated him for the IHSAA honor. Clevenger doesn’t have an exact final retirement date in mind from his volunteer work as a team doctor, but has some great memories over the years.
“I think winning the championship game in 2011,” Clevenger said on his most memorable sideline experience. “It was interesting because that year after they won the second playoff game one of the students, she was a statistician over on the sidelines, she got killed in a car accident. She got killed on a Monday or a Tuesday. Her classmates had to go through all of that and they won that Friday night. They won two more and then the championship. A lot of the people dedicated that postseason to her.”
Although he is designated as the St. Ansgar team doctor, Clevenger doesn’t limit his services just to the kids on his sideline. He helps any injured player regardless, but that hasn’t dulled his competitive nature.
“We could of always won a few more games,” Clevenger said jokingly about his only regrets. “No, nothing. It’s been a really fun time, I look forward to it every year. Every Friday night it’s been well worth the time and the effort.”