Westwood's Paul Lilla is Athletic Trainer of the Year
At the close of the 2021-22 school year, the Massachusetts Secondary Schools Athletic Directors Association has selected Westwood High School’s Athletic Trainer, Paul Lilla, as its Athletic Trainer of the Year. While the award to Mr. Lilla has recently been announced, it isn’t scheduled to be presented until the next academic year.
Mr. Lilla says he doesn't know for what exact reasons the athletic directors in the league made him the top vote-getter this year. However, as to how he measures his own success, he explains, "I'm proud when people say complimentary things. It can often be a thankless job and I get a lot of thank-yous. That may not be a grand success, but it’s something that you take pride in, in terms of knowing that - at least most of time - you're doing the right thing.” Being appreciated, he says, gives him the biggest sense of success.
Mr. Lilla has been with Westwood High School for twenty-one years, providing health care to its student athletes. He assists in the prevention, management, and rehabilitation of sports injuries. But he tries to keep a low profile. He is surprised at the attention which the award has brought upon him and notes that his interview with Westwood Minute may be one of the first he has had in his time at Westwood.
Mr. Lilla strives to be consistent and effective in a quiet way. "I don’t really want the attention. If I’m doing my job right, hopefully I’m not getting much attention. It’s the nature of the job, the nature of being in that role, in the backdrop, where everyone is focused on the game. If everyone’s healthy, that’s a good thing. I’m doing my job, and that’s good enough for me.”
Regarding how he may have assisted the Westwood High School Girls Lacrosse team to a back-to-back state title this year, Mr. Lilla says, “Girls Lacrosse had about the healthiest season imaginable. . . We had only one kind of minor, overuse injury. . . But other than that, they were silent. . . .I stayed the heck away from it and didn’t mess it up!” he exclaims, with some humor.
In fact, being on the sidelines is part of Mr. Lilla’s job, and he can be seen on the sidelines of Wolverine home games. Though on the sideline, he is an important presence, a source of aid and security to student athletes, along with their coaches and parents. He is especially important to those involved in football and ice hockey. Those sports are a step beyond contact sports, and are considered collision sports. A health care provider is required to be present at all football and hockey games.
At Westwood High School, Mr. Lilla works closely with the athletic director, Matt Gillis, and he assists all teams. He keeps track of the athletes’ records of sports injuries and provides athletic training room coverage for evaluating injuries, taping, and stretching.
Describing the job of athletic trainers, Mr. Lilla explains, “We’re trying to prevent injuries from happening. But then, when they do, we try to be the first to respond.” he says. The athletic trainer’s response includes directing the athlete to the appropriate level of care - an emergency room, orthopedist, or a primary care doctor. If it’s something minor, an athletic trainer may handle the injury under the direction of a physician.
It took a while for Mr. Lilla to discover his career path. As an undergraduate physical education major at Boston University, he had thought he would be a gym teacher. His interest developed into sports management, and he landed a job at Boston Garden, working at the Pro Shop and as a tour guide. He eventually worked his way into management, working at Madison Square Garden where he was responsible for merchandising and sales. It was “an awesome job,” he says, but with concerts, his hours could run through 3 a.m. And he felt that it lacked something.
Mr. Lilla is the son of a school nurse and has always had an interest in the workings of the body. He eventually entered a masters degree program for physical education at Bridgewater State. Mr. Lilla interviewed for a few positions. Westwood offered the best position, and he has never looked back.
Other than playing, refereeing, or coaching, being an athletic trainer is the job that gets a person closest to the game, Mr. Lilla believes. “The combination of providing healthcare in that athletic setting – that made it a good spot for me,” he says.
“When I get praise and an award like this, it is just kind of mind-blowing. I'm no different than other athletic trainers. . . but I do know I’m lucky,” he says, acknowledging current and previous athletic directors, principals, superintendents, administrations and school committees. He says they have all put him in a position to succeed.
Mr. Lilla highlighted the relationship he enjoys with Athletic Director Matt Gillis. He observed that the relationship between the athletic director and athletic trainer is critical for any high school athletic department. He appreciates the effectiveness of Mr. Gillis as athletic director, and says the two have a great relationship. “Matt and I have fun, and I can’t put a price on that. We keep each other grounded."
Mr. Lilla also considers Westwood to be fortunate in having “great coaches and great kids to work with and take care of . . . . The vast majority are just really a lot of fun to be around,” he says. Additionally, there's the fact that Westwood has excellent academics, and has been competitive in many sports. Those all combine to give him a sense of appreciation for where his career has taken him.
On his goals going forward, Mr. Lilla hopes to maintain the same level of care for all athletes that he has so far been proud to provide. Regardless of the athlete’s role or ability, Mr. Lilla tries to ensure that every athlete under his care receives comparable attention. “That’s been one of my cornerstones,” he says.
Mr. Lilla notes that his job is a young person’s game, as it requires being physically active and out in the elements. It can be absolute joy to be outside on a perfect day. But 40 degree days, “where it’s raining sideways,” are much less enjoyable.
Luckily, Mr. Lilla also finds joy in the rhythm of the seasons. Fall brings heat, three levels of not only football but also volleyball, cross-country and field hockey; six levels of soccer; and the busiest time of the year. “Fall is nuts,” he remarks.
Then, as time progresses, things become more manageable. Winter is his favorite season because there is the most rhythmic flow to it. Basketball and hockey each fall on certain days. Everything is indoors, with one group of athletes following another in his schedule. He also finds that there’s a little more time for one-on-one with the student athlete, which he enjoys.
Then comes spring and lacrosse, baseball, tennis, and track and field. “Spring is a sprint to the finish,” he says. “If you’re lucky, you’re outside. Before you know it, it’s April vacation and the seniors are finishing up. It’s a sprint to the end, but I enjoy that kind of rhythm over the course of the year.”
Summer offers a break. It's time to recharge. And then it’s fall again. “When I’m dreading coming back in fall, it’s probably time to walk away," he says, while noting that the time for that has not come. He is still enjoying the rhythm.
And, he says good naturedly, “I like Westwood and Westwood likes me.”
Thanks to Paul Lilla for speaking with Westwood Minute.
Updated 7/5/2022 at 12:54 p.m. A correction has been made in referencing "the Pro Shop" instead of "a pro shop."