Alumni Success Story: Recovering and Advancing

April 29, 2014

Leigh Weiss

* Photos courtesy of Evan Pinkus

Hard work, determination pays off in dividends for kinesiology alumnus

By Sarah Wardell

When Michigan State University kinesiology alumnus Leigh Weiss graduated from high school in 2000, he was like most graduates—hopeful and carefree. An East Brunswick, N.J. native, Weiss was swimming at the Jersey Shore with friends the weekend after his senior prom.

“It was a hot, sunny day,” said Weiss. “I took a dive off the dock. It was too shallow.”

Weiss slammed into the bottom of the ocean and was immediately paralyzed from the neck down. His four friends, each with lifeguard training, pulled Weiss out of the water, got him stabilized onto a boogie board and called for help.

“I was conscious through the whole thing, in the water, too,” Weiss said. “I sensed that I was drowning, and while being transported, I felt a tingle in my toe.”

An avid science student and mentee of East Brunswick High School’s well-known athletic trainer Phil Hossler, Weiss knew this small tingle was a good sign.

And after a number of hours, he began to regain feeling.

Weiss underwent six hours of spinal surgery at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and began the long road to recovery—completely relearning how to walk and run, and regain strength and endurance—a process that took months of rehabilitation.

Having been accepted to the University of Pittsburgh, Weiss went on to study athletic training. Little did he know that during his undergraduate studies, a door would open to his ultimate dream job: assistant athletic trainer with the New York Giants football team.

Forward progress

During Weiss’s three-summer internship with the NFL’s New York Giants, he worked alongside the team’s veteran staffer and Senior Vice President of Medical Services Ronnie Barnes.

When Weiss decided he was ready to pursue a master’s degree in 2004, Barnes, who is a former MSU assistant athletic trainer, suggested the Department of Kinesiology at MSU right away.

“MSU’s osteopathic philosophy of manual medicine, with a hands-on approach for mobilizations and treating underlying dysfunction, was a huge draw,” said Weiss.

Leigh Weiss and Ronnie barnes

Weiss (right) works with Ronnie Barnes (far left) to assist an injured player off the field. Barnes, who has previously worked as an athletic trainer at MSU, maintains close ties to the university’s football program.

He came to East Lansing and pursued a master’s degree in Kinesiology, where he was advisee to Associate Professor Tracey Covassin, an expert on the impact of concussions.

“Leigh was one of the most level-headed, hard-working students … he was one of our best master’s students, in fact,” Covassin added.

Throughout Weiss’s time at MSU, he managed to collect massive amounts of data during the Spartan football season for his thesis on the effects of an exhaustive bout of exercise on neurocognitive function, which he and Covassin eventually had published. In addition, Weiss earned the 2004-2005 Outstanding Master Student Award for his scholarship, teaching and service contributions.

He even finished his thesis before the end of the semester—a feat nearly unheard of, according to Covassin.

“Leigh would be at the lab at 6 a.m. He had an incredible work ethic,” Covassin added. “He was fair and compassionate when teaching the undergraduates, and not much upset him.”

Weiss admits that, working with Associate Professor John Powell, MSU Head Athletic Trainer Sally Nogle, former Head Athletic Trainer Jeff Monroe and other MSU faculty created an incredible environment to grow in. 

All athletic training students at MSU have opportunities to interact with the university’s 24 intercollegiate teams, and Weiss regularly worked with student-athletes in the athletic training rooms and on the playing fields.

“We are constantly asked to make decisions with our team physicians as to if a player is OK to play,” said Weiss. “I feel my graduate assistantship at MSU prepared me for that next level.”

Covassin says Weiss is among a small group of MSU graduates who are athletic trainers in the NFL.

“Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there are about 75 to 90 assistant athletic trainers and even fewer dual-credentialed athletic trainer/physical therapists like Leigh, so he’s among an elite group,” Covassin adds.

Weiss went on to complete a doctorate in physical therapy at Dominican College in New York and, having been offered a full-time position with the Giants, was ready to step onto the field.

Dreams realized

Weiss-BradshawWeiss’s first season working full-time with the Giants was in 2007, and that following February, the team went on to win Super Bowl XLII in Phoenix.

“I was very lucky that season,” Weiss said. “And it was incredible, to be on the biggest stage.”

Weiss returned with the team to that stage again following the 2011 season, and despite a rocky start to the season after a league lockout, the team came together. The Giants made the playoffs, and in true Eli Manning fourth-quarter comeback style, they narrowly won Super Bowl XLVI.

On game day, Weiss and the Giants medical staff have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. They could see anything from catastrophic, life-threatening injuries to ankle sprains.

“My own rehabilitation was a hard road, but I experienced what some of the players I work with experience,” Weiss said. “It’s given me an appreciation for the hard work it takes to get back on the field, back doing what they love.”

And what does he love the most?

“To help a player back from serious injury and have them perform at the highest level,” he said with a smile. “At the end of the day, it’s why I do what I do.”