Last wekend, football coach Ed Henry sat in the quiet of his Fairfax County home and tried to make sense of a tragedy -- the death last week of Robinson High School senior Jon Walsh on the first day of practice
Ed Henry has been a football coach for 31 years, the last six as head coach at Robinson. In those years, he has tasted success often. But on Monday Aug. 10, as he watched Jon Walsh fall to the track during a mile-and-a-half run, Henry faced what he describes as the worst experience of his career.
"I saw Jon go down and I turned to our trainer (Larry Nottingham) and said, 'Larry!' but Larry was already on his way there," Henry recalled. "Kids fall and you think of an ankle or a knee. When I got there Larry had already started CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation); about 20 seconds had passed.
"I told my assistants to get their players into their groups. I called the rescue squad and (Jon Walsh's) parents. I went inside and told the principal and then I watched (rescue workers) get the IVs going.
"You know, I watch them practice, and I've always suspected that I could detect something seriously wrong. But I was looking at them run . . . hell, I had been talking to Jon just before he went onto the track . . . and I didn't detect a damn thing."
Following Walsh's death, Fairfax County officials ordered an autopsy. As of early this week, the results of the autopsy had not been released.
Walsh, who had passed a rigorous physical before attending a month-long wrestling camp earlier this summer, was one of nearly 100 students trying out for the Robinson team this year. Henry remembers him as a light-hearted and capable player.
"Last season, if Jon screwed up or missed an assignment, I just couldn't get on him very hard," Henry said, smiling at the thought. "He always did something to make me laugh. He just had that likable personality."
That Henry could appreciate Walsh's humor, even in the most tense situations, is a measure of Henry's overall attitude toward his players and coaching, according to colleagues who have worked with him over the years.
Highly regarded in coaching and teaching circles, Henry insists that the most crucial part of a sports program is not technique, but the ability of a coach to lead and encourage young players.
"Look, I know football, and knowledge-wise that's no big thing," said Henry, who published a technical book on football in the 1970s that was widely read by fellow coaches. "Dealing with people is the hardest thing, the most challenging thing about this job. You have to teach kids attitude and how to act and how to study -- it goes beyond football.
"A coach can't be afraid of getting close to people. We're trying to train leaders. Jon was on his way. I was just starting to get close to him."
The respect for Henry is evident in the way people responded to last week's tragedy.
Annandale coach Bob Hardage canceled practice last Thursday, the day of Jon Walsh's funeral. Chantilly coach Ken Poates had his entire team sign a sympathy card that was sent to the Walsh family, and other coaches held special meetings with their players to discuss the incident.
"They've been so supportive," Henry said of his colleagues. "I've seen a lot of good in people, and I've pointed it out to my players. I want them to remember it."
Said South Lakes coach Tom Secules: "I was heartsick for Ed and for the boy's family."
While coaches expressed their sympathy over Walsh's death, they also discussed fears that the same type of incident could happen on their own playing fields.
As Carl Hines, coach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, put it: "My staff was really down after hearing about it. It made us more aware than ever that these things happen."
So far, however, few coaches have indicated that there will be major changes in physical tests for players, in conditioning exercises or in practice sessions.
Although the Virginia High School League, which governs intermural sports in Virginia, prohibits formal workouts out of season, virtually all local football coaches encourage year-round conditioning of their players. And at the beginning of each season -- generally the first day of practice -- coaches test the physical condition of each player through a variety of exercises. If a player fails one test or more, coaches may prohibit the player from continuing practice until his or her physical condition improves.
The conditioning tests vary from coach to coach. For example, Henry uses six tests over a three-hour period, five of which are conducted indoors.
Only two, a 40-yard dash and a mile-and-a-half run, require running. When Walsh collapsed last week, the Robinson team was on the last of the six tests.
Other area coaches report similar tests, including running up and down stadium steps, sprinting three 300-yard dashes and running as many laps as possible around a quarter-mile track in 12 minutes. As a safeguard against heat-related injuries, coaches say they work water breaks into all practices.
"Any time a kid wants water, he gets it," Poates said. "Another thing we do, and I learned this from Ed (Henry), is to take pulse rates during practice to make sure it's coming down. If it isn't, then the kid doesn't go on to the next drill."
Despite the precautions, Dr. Robert Nirschl of Arlington, who is a specialist in sports medicine, believes more can be done to assure that young players are in top physical condition -- and hopefully prevent the type of tragedy that occurred at Robinson last week.
This fall, Nirschl, who is chairman of the Sportsmedicine Committee of the Virginia Medical Society, says he will recommend that the society develop physical tests that would be conducted annually at all schools in Virginia.
The tests, Nirschl says, would provide a "baseline so if you have a kid who's out for a sport but hasn't passed part of the test you know you have to look further to find out the nature of his problem. The (test) results could be looked at with the kid's physical. Whether we would surface any more cardiac irregularities or musculo-skeletal problems is a fair question. But at least there would be a greater chance of discovering them.
"The problem is that physicals for (high school) athletes are the same as for average citizens, but the athletes face greater demands. There should be some stress factor in a physical similar to what an athlete faces.
"The average physical for a high school athlete consists of a check of blood pressure, the heart, the lungs, a check for a hernia and making sure the kid has both eyes and both kidneys. That's a help . . . but if you ask me if the standard high school physical is a good exam or as good as it can be, I'd have to say no."
Nirschl has no way of knowing whether more extensive testing would have saved Jon Walsh.
"No medical test is 100 percent accurate," Nirschl said. "It's just a damn shame, for so many reasons, that these things happen. The benefits from sports are so great, they far outweigh the negatives."