Heat-Related Illness a Chief Concern as High School Football Practice Kicks Off

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

Football players in D.C. Public Schools report for their first official practice of 2009 on Saturday, officially marking the end of summer for countless athletes in the Washington area. Within the next week, athletes in Virginia and Maryland will return to the fields as well, kicking off their fall seasons in the sweltering August heat and humidity.

While two-a-day football practices without water breaks are largely a relic, the prevention of heat-related illnesses and injuries among high school athletes remains a chief concern of local school districts and a highly charged issue across the country, especially in the wake of a Northwest High player's death last month.

Unlike college athletics, where the NCAA implemented a five-day acclimatization period for football in 2003, there are no national heat guidelines for secondary schools.

"With so many kids participating, there does need to be some oversight," said Jon Almquist, the athletic training administrator for Fairfax County Public Schools. "The idea with having guidelines is not to hinder or hamstring the coaches, or make them go into a cookie-cutter type pattern -- most of them do a good job -- but it's to prevent the renegades from continuing on without any accountability."

In June, the National Athletic Trainers' Association sparked nationwide debate when it published new preseason heat acclimatization guidelines for high schools that recommend gradually increasing practice time and equipment usage over 14 days.

School districts across the country are watching what is believed to be the first criminal case of its kind against Jason Stinson, a coach in Louisville who faces reckless homicide charges in the death of Max Gilpin, 15, from complications of heatstroke in August 2008 after collapsing at football practice.

Closer to home, on July 6, Edwin "Dek" Miller, 16, a football player at Northwest, died possibly from a heat-related illness four days after he collapsed during voluntary conditioning workouts.

Although Miller's autopsy results are pending, a family member said he was told by emergency medical personnel that Miller showed signs of dehydration and possible heatstroke after he passed out. The high temperature in Germantown that day was 81 degrees.

"Whenever you experience a tragedy, it heightens your awareness," said Duke Beattie, athletic supervisor for Montgomery County Public Schools, adding there are no planned changes to practice guidelines after Miller's collapse. "We consistently emphasize proper hydration, fluid intake and being aware of the heat to our coaches, and they do a good job of making sure everyone's taken care of."

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, there were 20 fatalities across all levels of football in 2008, six of which were caused by heatstroke -- the highest number of heat-related football deaths since 1972. Of the 39 football players who have died from heatstroke since 1995, 29 were high school athletes.

"As a coach, what is the fine line where you're pushing a kid to a new level of conditioning and getting him in better shape to where you cross that line and practice becomes dangerous? We don't know," said Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart, in his 10th season at the school. "It's hard, because a lot of kids come in having sat around all summer playing Xbox and eating potato chips. We have to get that kid ready for the season and push him a bit harder than the others because of the work that needs to be done, but we have to pay closer attention to him at the same time. You just try to take every precaution."

Awareness of heat illness and injury has grown dramatically in recent years, and not just in football. Other sports such as soccer, field hockey and cross-country also have taken steps to increase understanding about hydration and heat issues.

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