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Greatest Person of the Day: Pono Aiona, Sports Doctor

Football is his passion, but supporting young players and preventing injuries is the key to this sports doc's success.

Each week, Patch highlights one person who has made a difference in Milpitas, Mountain View, Los Altos or Palo Alto.

On football game days, Pono Aiona, doctor of chiropractic, can be found in a clinic on the Milpitas High campus, taping the ankles of varsity players as a preventive measure.

It's volunteer time for the ex-football player, but what he does on the field is not that different from what he does in his office. The Milpitas resident treats sports injuries at his private practice in Fremont called Sport Clinic Inc., specializing in rehab and chiropractic work.

Aiona volunteers his time, while doctors from the same medical building, Basil Besh and John Jaureguito of Fremont Orthopaedic & Rehabilitative Medicine, cover the costs of supplies he uses on the players, about $1,000 each year.

"Tape is a science in itself," says Pono, who prefers to buy a pricier brand, because of the quality. "I burn through a box of tape every other week during the season ... that's just for ankles."

And he also has a right-hand woman on game days, former Milpitas High basketball player, Erica Wong. For three years while an undergraduate at UC Davis, she helped rehab and administer first aid to UC Davis Division I athletes. Now she's applying for graduate school for physical therapy for 2012.

An athlete at heart, Wong is recovering from surgery for a torn ACL. When she first met Aiona as a teenager, she had gone to him after an injury playing rugby at school.

"I sprained my ankle in eighth grade and I went to Pono to have him fix it," she said. "That's how I knew I always wanted to do sports medicine." 

Making a Conscious Effort to Give Back

The Milpitas Fire Department emergency medical technicians donate their time during the packed football games in case of an injury with the players or in the crowd. It's something that Jeff Lamb, athletic director for the high school, said deserves mentioning. 

For preventative measures, some schools in the region even smaller than Milpitas High's 3,000 student population will hire athletic trainers. Milpitas High relies on Dr. Pono Aiona.

"We just never had the money to pay for it," said Lamb. "Coaches have to do it. I've been taping ankles for 30-something years."

It was five years ago, while volunteering as an assistant football coach for Milpitas High, that Aiona said he had a vision to open a small volunteer clinic on campus. It would come equipped with an exam table, ice bags, sports wraps, heel lace pads, cans of sticky spray.

Corinne Osborn of the women's Physical Education Department offered a room the size of an office, complete with an ice machine. The clinic was built last summer and became operational last fall. Aiona had cleared it with then-Superintendent Karl Black. Both were Milpitas Rotarians at the time; Aiona was president in 2004 and continues to be involved.

But during the football season, he's on campus during most practices. His daughter, who participates in track, is a junior at Milpitas High. And his son attends eighth grade at Rancho Middle School. And there's camaraderie, too, because many of the coaches, including Varsity Coach Kelly King, played each other in college.

He works closely with football, the largest sport on campus, (and volunteers as a coach, too), but says, "I'll see any athlete on campus at the request of their coach," he said, mostly for first aid.

"I try not to make any clinical decisions on site," he said. "If it's a traumatic ... injury, we call 9-1-1."

If the issue needs more attention, the students go to his private practice in Fremont. "They come in, literally, after hours," he said, "then I just stay and treat them on my own time."

Part of his vision was to open clinics in other schools, including Fremont. But he's found it's not that simple. Without volunteer athletic trainers, it can cost $20 an hour to start, and then an additional $3,000 a month for insurance and payroll. 

Hard Lessons

Aiona wants to make a difference at the high school level. At this age, teenagers still listen, he said.

"Football will only get you so far," said Aiona, who said he tries to instill some other values in the players at Milpitas High. "Be set up to succeed."

"NCAA championships don't mean anything," he said. He should know. As a football player for UC Davis, Aiona was kicked out for poor academics. 

He thanks Dean Gold to this day for turning that part of his life around.

"I needed a boot in the butt to get me away from my fraternity and my friends, to get away from bad habits," he said.

His wife, who was studying to be a veterinarian, showed him how to develop study habits. He finished his bachelor's degree in exercise science at Sacramento State University. Later, he earned his doctorate in chiropractics at Palmer Chiropractic College-West in San Jose.

But he is who is he is because of football.

"I love this sport," he said. "It gave me a lot."

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