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Bruce Snell’s Story

Wall space is limited at NW Sports Physical Therapy’s Gig Harbor office.

Framed jerseys of some of the world’s premiere athletes are on display throughout the building, occupying much of the available real estate.

As you walk through a hallway, a virtual who’s who of American soccer greats are showcased.

The collection is impressive, a dream for any sports memorabilia or eBay enthusiast.

“We do have a lot of stuff,” commented NW Sports Physical Therapy owner Bruce Snell as he settles into a chair.

Directly above Snell, however, may be the most interesting jersey in the lot. It’s certainly the most relevant in regards to the historical beginnings of Snell’s 30-year-old company. 

“Oh, that,” Snell acknowledged when asked about the jersey, a small smile beginning to appear on his face. “That’s just something I got my senior year.”

Behind the glass is a weathered University of Washington football jersey.

The number “79” is featured in large block numbers. An official “Sun Bowl” patch is located on one of the shoulders with the name “Snell” stitched proudly across the back.

The jersey represents the Huskies 14-7 victory over No. 11 Texas in the 1979 Sun Bowl.

If you were able to round up a roster from that game, Snell’s name would not be present. He didn’t make a tackle, deliver a block or attempt a pass, yet he still played a role in the victory as a student trainer.

“(The University of Washington football program) really treated everyone like they were part of the team,” Snell said. “It wasn’t just about the players and coaches. It was about everyone involved.”

Over the last three decades, Snell has applied that same approach to NW Sports Physical Therapy – it’s all about the team effort.

Coincidentally, it was Snell’s exclusion from a football team – at least on the playing side of things – that actually kick started his path towards his chosen profession.

Flashback to the early 1970s when a then junior high school-aged Snell received some less-than-desirable news.

“I was a quarterback,” the 56-year-old Snell stated, recalling the summer before the start of his ninth-grade year. “I wasn’t very good, but I was a quarterback.”

Snell’s gridiron dreams, however, came to an abrupt halt as before the season even started he was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter – a disease which affects adolescents during growth spurts, causing painful inflammation under the knees.

“Today it would be nothing,” Snell said about the ailment, “but back then it meant I couldn’t play sports for six months.”

That meant no football.

Most individuals would spend a significant amount of time dwelling on this unfortunate turn, but Snell was never really given the opportunity to sulk. Fate had other plans for him because it was at that very moment that the initial stages of his professional life started to take shape.

“Of course, I was pretty disappointed,” Snell said about being sidelined during his ninth-grade football season. “My coach called me up and said he still wanted me to be a part of the team. He asked if I wanted to help out and tape ankles.”

Snell quickly agreed to participate, but there was one hurdle.

“I didn’t know how to tape ankles,” Snell remembered. “Not a clue.”

He enrolled in a sports medicine class that summer; and as luck would have it the class was being taught by the head athletic trainer at the University of Washington – quickly igniting Snell’s interest in the field.

“He really took me under his wing,” Snell said. “I came back the next summer and took another class. Physical therapy and how it fit in with sports medicine was just in its initial stages. I remember thinking this is something I really wanted to do.”

By the time he graduated from Aberdeen High School, Snell’s college aspirations were firmly established – he would attend the University of Washington and pursue a kinesiology degree.

“Just great people there,” Snell said about his college experience. “PT (Physical Therapy) was still very new. Everyone was incredibly encouraging.”

With a Bachelor of Science degree in hand, Snell immediately sought out a physical therapy school where he could receive his Master’s. His search led him out of the Evergreen State and to Indianapolis University.

“Back then, your options were limited (in finding a physical therapy school). UW, UPS and Pacific was about it. The truth is, I went to Indiana because they were the only one who accepted me,” Snell said with a laugh, “but it ended up being a perfect fit for me.”

From Indiana, Snell traveled to Arizona, working as a physical trainer, including a brief stint as a trainer with a professional soccer team, before heading back to his home state for good.

The draw back home?

Snell received a position as head trainer for the Tacoma Stars, a newly formed club in the Major Indoor Soccer League – furthering his love for the sport.

Not long after his return home, Snell opened a private practice in Tacoma in 1984. Six years later a second location would open in Gig Harbor.

While the private practice began to take off, Snell also served as a trainer for the U.S. Men’s National team, working the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the 2002 World Cup in Korea and the 2006 World Cup in Germany, as well as working as a trainer for the U.S. Women’s National team in the 2011 World Cup in Germany.

“I’m not a business guy,” Snell said. “When I started out I didn’t have a traditional business model. I made a lot of mistakes. But we always had the approach of doing things the right way.”

That meant, above everything else, building relationships and caring for both the patients and employees.

“At the end of the day,” Snell said, “anyone can learn to do this. Anyone can do physical therapy, but to build those relationships, to care about people, to be a member of a community, those are the experiences that matter most to us.”

Snell is quick to scoff at his original business model, but it’s hard to argue 30 years of success.

“You look at what we have on the walls,” Snell said, referring to the framed jerseys which include names like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller and Hope Solo. “These are all nice stories, but they’re not us.”

“You know what our favorite stories are?” Snell continued. “A girl came in 18 months ago, she has a torn ACL. She’s crying; and we tell her, ‘The process starts now.’ That’s the first step in building that relationship. The first day (of rehabilitation) is tough, but she gets through it. She continues to improve. After time she’s back out there playing soccer again, and it’s incredible. To go from where she was to playing again is an incredible feeling for her and for us. We want people to have those types of stories. We want to have those types of relationships with everyone who comes in here.”

Snell and NW Sports Physical Therapy now has three decades worth of similar stories.

And to think – it all started by taping ankles.