It’s been 10 years since Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer collapsed and died suddenly from heat stroke during training camp.
At the time, Stringer’s tragic passing was expected to spur changes in the way football coaches and team officials approached workouts in extreme summer heat. But this summer, high school football players are dying at an alarming rate.
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Tuesday night 15-year-old Montel Williams became the fifth high school football player to die during a summer of record-breaking heat when he collapsed an hour into practice at Gurdon High School in southwest Arkansas.
And while the cause of Williams’s death was not yet determined as of Thursday afternoon, the temperature in the area was 93 degrees with a 110 degree heat index when Williams collapsed at about 8:30 p.m.
On July 30, Tyquan Xavier Brantley, 14, collapsed at a morning practice for his South Carolina high school and died later that night.
Three days later, two 16-year-olds from different high schools in Georgia died, one after collapsing while leaving practice.
While parents of teenagers continue to grieve, drastic action should be taken to limit the chances of more player deaths related to physical exertion in extreme heat.
In a recent Los Angeles Times story, climatologist Andrew Grundstein said the annual death rate during football practices — which was about one per year from 1980-94 — has roughly tripled to 2.8 deaths per year.
What can be done to limit the risk of sudden death on the football field? More than you might think.
• High schools should be required to implement a steady acclimation process to get athletes back into the flow of physical exertion prior to loading them down with pads for full practices.
• High schools should be required to have certified athletic trainers on hand for every practice. This would provide a knowledgeable resource who could help diagnose heat exhaustion and encourage coaches to provide sufficient breaks in practice.
• High school coaches should be required to be trained in first aid. This would provide another potential first responder who could assist an injured or sick player.
• High school districts should have heat limitations for outdoor practices that require coaches to move practices earlier, later or indoors if the temperature reaches a certain threshold — an absolute no-brainer. Currently there are no national heat guidelines for secondary schools.
And then there’s the issue of players worrying about being perceived as weak for requesting an extra water break or stepping into the shade to help lower their core body temperature. This simply has to change.
“He showed the signs. He needed to tell ‘em, ‘I’m tired,’” said Glenn Jones, whose son Forrest died from heatstroke suffered at Grove High School football practice in Georgia last week. “We really need to get across to these kids that it doesn’t make them a weak person to tell the coach you’re tired and you need a break. It makes you a better person.”
Stringer’s death in Aug. 2001 led NFL teams to pay closer attention to their players during long, hot preseason practices, and the Vikings now make some players take pills that allow their staff to monitor their core temperatures during practice. At the time of Stringer’s death, the 335-pound lineman was using the supplement ephedra, which may have contributed to the onset of heat stroke.
Locally, D.C. Public Schools and the Virginia High School League maintain standardized guidelines for heat that allow for the shifting or cancelation of practices in extreme temperatures. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association allows individual districts to create their own regulations.
But the fact remains that high school athletes across the country — many in regions where record temperatures continue to soar into the 90s and above 100 degrees — will continue to take the field in hot, heavy pads and uniforms, many without proper observation or the ability to self-diagnose the onset of heat exhaustion, heat stroke and other life-threatening ailments.
Any changes in school policies — both high school and college — and NFL practice regulations that could reduce the chances of similar incidents should be considered. After all, as the friends and family of the late Korey Stringer will attest, they’re already more than 10 years overdue.