When Elements Go Extreme

Chris Samuels
Chris Samuels takes a break from the heat at the water cooler. Players are reminded frequently about the need to drink water and report any signs of discomfort. (Preston Keres - The Post)

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Sometime during the Washington Redskins' first training camp practice Monday afternoon, fullback Mike Sellers felt his lower body lock up. The cramps leveled him, rendering him suddenly unable to move. After being carted off the field, three intravenous treatments were required to replenish his system.

Sellers estimates he drank about a gallon of water that day, but even that was insufficient to fully hydrate him in the oppressive heat and humidity that is testing the will of Redskins players, coaches and fans.

Sellers was able to return for both of yesterday's practices at Redskins Park, where the heat index reached 108 degrees at the start of the 4:30 p.m. session, but the team's medical staff -- not to mention his teammates -- was watching him closely. Keeping players healthy and cool is serious business for trainers and coaches, especially with a high temperature of 101 forecast for today, and players are reminded frequently about the need to drink water and report any signs of discomfort, such as rapid breathing or weakness.

Five years ago yesterday, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer collapsed and died during training camp in Mankato, Minn., from complications of heatstroke. His collapse, which received intense media attention, came on a day when the heat index reached 109, and it reinforced the importance of safeguarding against dehydration and heatstroke for NFL teams.

Although the number of deaths from heatstroke in professional, college, high school and youth football is not high, according to the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, it says there is "no excuse for any number of heatstroke deaths since they are all preventable with the proper precautions."

The center reports that 26 football players -- 20 high school, 4 college and 2 professional -- have died from heat stroke over the last 10 years. A 15-year-old high school player in suburban Atlanta died yesterday from heat stroke after collapsing one day earlier following an offseason workout, the Associated Press reported.

Size can play a role, too. Stringer's weight at the time of his death was 336 pounds, and, according to the Vikings' report on his death, the now-banned diet supplement ephedrine was found in his system.

"I think it's always a concern for us," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said of the severe heat and humidity this week. "The reality is, you always start in the heat and you just do the best job you can. We're going to try to start as late [in the day] as you can and start as early as you can, and give them a rest in the middle of the day and this year we've only got three two-a-days with the way we have our schedule set up right now.

"But having said that, it's one of my biggest concerns and one of our concerns always, because you've got big guys there in the heat trying to be competitive and it's something you really have to watch."

During his annual opening address to players Sunday night, Gibbs brought in a nutritionist to instruct them on coping with the heat. The recommendations have been repeated by the team's athletic trainers every day, and each night coaches and trainers meet to determine if it is necessary to scale back practices, hold them later or earlier, or schedule more water breaks into the workouts. Today's session, for instance, was initially slated to begin at 4 p.m. but will now run from 7 to 9 p.m. Yesterday's afternoon practice was cut short and the team took a lengthy water break. Gibbs has been diligent about allowing players ample time for rest and recovery between workouts since returning to coach the team in 2004.

"We've got a plan of weighing them in [before practice] and weighing them out, and we monitor their body weights and make sure they recover," said Bubba Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine. "And if they don't recover, we either pull them out of practice the next day or monitor them closely during practice. You see us working out there, and it's a job to work. We're icing them down and watering them down, and they get water every chance they can get."

Sellers was in full pads with the rest of the team yesterday morning -- the players wear shorts in the afternoon sessions -- and attributed his problems Monday to a salt deficiency.

"I'm a Washington state guy. I'm used to rain and clouds and all that stuff," said Sellers, who stands 6 feet 3, weighs 278 pounds and is entering his sixth season with the Redskins. "So to me, this is ridiculous. As many years as I've been here and went to training camps, this is the hottest I've been through. I usually carry about a gallon of water around with me, anyway, so I'm usually hydrated. It's just that I had no salt, therefore the water just ran right out of me."

After most practices, large tubs of freezing water are coveted spots for players, helping them quickly lower their body temperature. "The guys like it," Tyer said of the icy baths. "It's a mess of a deal, but it seems to work. It cools them off a little bit fairly quickly."

Salt tablets are available, if necessary, and "common sense" practices are best applied to all athletes training in these conditions, whether amateur or professional, Tyer said. He urges Redskins players to find a cool spot after practice, drink plenty of water and, after a brief rest, to begin moving around again to prevent cramping. It is also essential that they eat throughout the day and stay out of direct sunlight when possible, he said.

"I eat bad," 310-pound offensive lineman Randy Thomas, a notorious jokester, said after yesterday's first practice. "This is not sweat, it's like grease coming off my head. I feel like the sun is on my shoulder and is rolling on my back, back and forth. I don't even feel the breeze even though the leaves are blowing."

As the players returned to Redskins Park to get dressed for the second practice, the area between the bus and the entrance to the practice facility felt like a sauna. Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, in his first camp with the team, made a brief stop in the media room to weigh in on the weather.

"Y'all see how hot it is out there? Woo-oo, man!" he said.

Sellers contemplated the repercussions of another bout of dehydration. "I'm doing fine now," he said, "and if not I'll get another IV after practice."

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