Leading with Heart: Don Bagnall

Don Bagnall’s Legacy Goes Far Beyond Sports Medicine

In the small shared office at the back of the athletic training room, Don Bagnall—who has served as an athletic trainer at Hopkins for 41 years—pulls out a large cardboard box from his top drawer and places it on his desk. Having just announced that he will retire following the 2022-2023 school year, Bagnall is finally starting to pause and reflect on his time here.

“These are a few letters and cards I’ve been sent over the years,” he explains.

Bagnall is being modest as always. There aren’t just a few notes. There are so many of them that they’re spilling out from all sides. All handwritten from students and parents, some of the ink on the pages has faded from over four decades of wear. Each note tells a different story but shares the same sentiment: Thank you, Don. 

“These get you through the difficult parts of the day,” says Bagnall. 

It may be hard for many in the Hopkins community to imagine an athletic competition without spotting Bagnall walking up and down the sidelines, the strap to his medical bag thrown over his shoulder as he patiently surveys the field. It may be strange for students and returning alums next year to not spot him in the hallways of the athletic center cracking a dry joke or asking a student how they’re feeling. Bagnall is also having a tough time imagining it himself.

“My gut says it’s time to retire, but my head and my heart will argue until the cows come home,” he says.

In his tenure at Hopkins, Bagnall has become much more than an athletic trainer on the sidelines. This past December, on the day his retirement was announced across the School’s social media accounts, a flood of comments rolled in from alumni of all ages, congratulating Bagnall on his renowned career. Many added anecdotes, inside jokes, and memories of injuries and sore muscles that Bagnall tended to through the years. Many were also quick to mention the seemingly endless roll of medical tape that Bagnall always had handy. 

Most of the words of appreciation stored within the cardboard box and in the digital space, however, have nothing to do with physical injuries. They speak to Bagnall’s role as a listener and a provider of emotional safety during the difficult adolescent years. While an injury may have brought students to Bagnall’s medical table, they often returned for additional support, whether it be to voice frustration around their recovery timeline or something completely unrelated to sports. Bagnall’s approach in those moments has always been to listen but also to know when it’s time to encourage them to move forward. 

“The training room was an area of refuge and meditation,” remembers Brock Dubin ’90. “Don was able to not only get us healthy and back on the field but was always the comforting hand on our shoulder to let us know that we were capable of handling the rigors of achieving success at Hopkins,” he added.

The more visible side of Bagnall’s role as Athletic Trainer is when he runs onto the field to tend to an injury. In those moments, the Hopkins community gets to see him at his best: calm and measured even during moments of heightened uncertainty. An eternal optimist with an empathetic but direct approach, Bagnall seems unflappable in moments of crisis. 

“No matter what the injury is, it can be devastating to the kid and their parents. In those moments, you have to be clear and direct about what’s going on and what they can expect from their recovery,” explains Bagnall. The next step after dealing with the initial incident is the process of rehabilitation where athletes continue to see Bagnall in his office as they heal. 

“Don made you feel seen and cared about, and as a teenager, that meant so much more than a good grade or strong test score,” says Gigi Clark ’08, who played field hockey at Hopkins. Clark recalls a story that encapsulates Bagnall’s attentiveness.

“Visiting Don’s office was a must after school, before practice. He always had either a funny zinger or a snack stashed away. Don diagnosed my freakishly cold hands as Raynaud’s Syndrome on the spot and always checked on my frigid digits in cold weather afterwards. I didn’t even know I had a syndrome, but he was paying attention to what I was complaining about and looking for a gentle solution. He always did caring things like this—going above and beyond what was asked of the athletic trainer simply because he cared.”

His ability to be the rock amidst chaos especially came in handy during the COVID-19 pandemic, where he played an instrumental role on the School’s COVID-19 task force. 109th Head of School Kai Bynum spent a good portion of his tenure at Hopkins working with Bagnall closely during the most heightened moments of the pandemic.

“Don is a trusted colleague, advisor, and friend. He was always our leader for health and medical issues facing Hopkins, and this became even more important as we were navigating the COVID crisis,” said Bynum. “For me, however, his guidance extended beyond the medical world. He truly cares about people and he understands the School. We talked about life and what we value, and he helped me believe in the idea of hope that brought so many of us together,” Bynum added.

Since arriving here in the early 1980s, Bagnall’s warm disposition has created an open door for students who look to Don as a mentor and friend. According to the people who experienced his care firsthand, this is his true legacy at Hopkins. Although it’s never been part of his job description, Bagnall says being there for his students at all times is paramount.

“There aren’t a lot of things more important in life than caring for kids when they need it most,” says Bagnall. "You are dealing with people at a stage in their lives when they face a lot of challenges, so taking the time to give them space, an ear, or a pat on the back is crucial.”

An Accomplished Run

A prolific long-distance runner with several marathons under his belt (all accomplished after the age of 60), Bagnall is uniquely qualified to apply running metaphors to his own life and career. We have all heard people say, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” but when Bagnall says it, it rings true.

Bagnall has earned many honors in his career’s marathon. As an Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Division Volunteer, he has worked at all three U.S. Olympic training centers, several international Pan American Games, and the 2004 Athens Para-lympic Games. He has acted as clinical supervisor for Southern Connecticut State University and Quinnipiac University interns, and has served on numerous professional athletic training and sports medicine committees at the state, district, and national levels. Bagnall has also served as liaison to the Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness, among many other roles, including his time as an EMT volunteer, as well as multiple summers spent working in physical therapy and orthopedic offices.

“A few people have described me as a jack of all trades, master of some,” jokes Bagnall. As the credentials have stacked up, Bagnall says others outside of the school world periodically ask him why he didn’t go and work in higher education or professional leagues like the NFL, as some of his peers in the sports medicine industry have. 

“I stayed because of the free lunch here,” says Bagnall with a warm grin. Jokes aside, Bagnall says the real reason he stayed at Hopkins was the respect he has been given since the first day he walked onto campus. According to Bagnall, the role of the athletic trainer has always been taken seriously at Hopkins, and even in the early years, he was looked upon as an expert. 

Bagnall has also gained respect outside of Hopkins. As one example, in January 2023, he was inducted as a member of the Eastern Athletic Trainers’ Association (EATA) ’49 Club, the highest recognition that can be achieved in his district. The award, which places Bagnall in the EATA Hall of Fame, recognizes those whose district, state, and EATA contributions demonstrate sustained service and leadership. 

Family First 

It is perhaps fitting that Bagnall discovered his love for sports medicine while attending school himself at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. After cutting him from his ninth grade soccer team, his Health & Physical Education Instructor, Jay Schofield, encouraged him to consider sports management the following school year. Bagnall agreed and began managing his school’s basketball team. His organizational skills and engaging personality made him a natural fit as a manager, but it was watching Schofield take care of Bagnall’s fellow classmates’ injuries that piqued his interest the most. Before long, Bagnall was devouring sports medicine books and soaking up everything he could. By the time high school ended, he had found his path. When applying for positions as an athletic trainer, Bagnall says he felt a kinship with Hopkins immediately because of its small community feel, which felt similar to his upbringing on Martha’s Vineyard. After accepting the job, Bagnall packed up his life in his Volkswagen Beetle en route to New Haven. He’s never looked back.

“I like belonging to a group,” says Bagnall. “There was and still is the overall sense of community and the relationships you build that are deeply seated here. It truly is a family.” 

Athletic Director Rocco DeMaio echoed this idea on the day Bagnall’s retirement was announced. “Don has embodied what it means to be part of the ‘Hopkins Family’ for over four decades,” said DeMaio. “His personable, dignified, and professional manner has enabled him to connect with and influence so many students during his tenure on the Hill. His friendship, passion, and positive leadership will be impossible to replace,” he added.

A Career in Chapters

Bagnall says he looks back at his Hopkins career in chapters. Like when he started advising to get to know students in a different way or the unforgettable five-year period he spent living with his young family on campus in Alumni House, where the communications and advancement offices now live. This was a particularly exciting time for Bagnall’s children, Rebecca ’09 and Will ’12, who practically grew up on the sidelines beside their father.

“Even though I wanted to see all the action, I did learn to stay on the sidelines specifically when my Dad would have to run out onto the field when a player got hurt,” remembers Rebecca. “When we weren’t playing in the end zones, Will and I would often hang by the coveted golf cart and watch our Dad evaluate various injuries.”

Years later, Will and Rebecca attended Hopkins, which was a different chapter altogether. 

“People who didn’t know my Dad or weren’t affiliated with Hopkins always asked me if it was weird to go to the school where he worked, but I honestly felt so lucky. Will and I always joke that our Dad was more popular than us in high school. I loved our car rides, being able to get hot cocoa in the cafe, and just stop and say hi to him. My Dad was such a support, but also didn’t overstep and let us find our own way at Hopkins,” remembers Rebecca.

When his children entered Hopkins as students, Bagnall gave them a joke to use if they ever encountered a fellow student who was critical of him. “I’d tell them to say, ‘Hey at least you don’t have to live with him,’” recalls Bagnall. As a true testament to Bagnall’s likability, Will and Rebecca never had to use that joke.

Leaving an Impact

The culture of caring Bagnall has cultivated during his Hopkins tenure has trickled through all aspects of the Hopkins Athletic Department. When Dr. Candice Norcott ’97 returned to speak at an all-school assembly, she said she immediately felt a sense of safety as she entered the athletic center even if it had been decades since she was in there. “I felt so comfortable speaking with any adult around campus, whether it be a teacher or popping in to see Don Bagnall for a chat. What sticks out to me is that I was always greeted with a warm grin from everyone, and no matter what issue I was dealing with, I felt seen.”

Will Bagnall says he feels immense pride when discussing his father’s legacy.

“From my early days scurrying around the football team, through high school, and still to this day, I get compared to my Dad a lot, especially because we look so much alike. Far from being annoying or embarrassing, it has been something to be proud of, but also has motivated me to live up to the standard my Dad has set,” says Will.

Bagnall isn’t clear what retirement will look like. He’s sure there will be some running involved and most likely some volunteering. The only thing that is certain is that as more warm words of gratitude come his way, he’s going to need to invest in a larger cardboard box to house them all.

Hopkins will celebrate Don Bagnall, his career and retirement at a special event on Saturday, June 3, at 11:00 am, as a part of Alumni Weekend 2023. If you would like to attend, please click here to register.

This article was originally printed in Views from the Hill, Issue 1, 2023. 
    • Bagnall at work on the football field.

    • Bagnall has run several marathons over the age of 60.

    • Bagnall’s volunteerism has brought him to three olympic training centers.

    • Bagnall is inducted into the EATA Hall of Fame, flanked here by his son Will ’12 and daughter Rebecca ’09

    • Bagnall’s high school yearbook portrait.

    • Will and Rebecca loved attending games with their Dad.

    • Bagnall greets alumni during a recent alumni weekend.

    • Bagnall takes in a game day.

    • In his office in the Athletic Center.

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