An article in Tuesday's editions of The Washington Post referred to guidelines issued by Bill Kyle, supervising director of athletics for the Montgomery County schools. The guidelines, which recommended certain procedures for football practices during hot weather, were issued before, not after, the heat-related death last Saturday of Auburn fullback Greg Pratt. The article also mentioned the 1981 death of Jon Walsh of Robinson High School. Walsh died of an unidentified heart abnormality. An autopsy did not reveal the reason for the heart failure.
After reading that Auburn fullback Greg Pratt had collapsed and died Saturday after running the last of three 440-yard dashes in 99-degree heat, Bill Kyle, the supervising director of athletics for Montgomery County public schools, instructed his football coaches to have their players remove their helmets and shoulder pads and take a water break at the first sign of heat exhaustion.
Pratt died of heatstroke, according to an autopsy whose results were released yesterday. Heat and related effects are the major causes of death among football players, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The federation says five of 21 high school deaths in the last three years were heat-related, including that of Jon Walsh of Robinson High School in Fairfax County in 1981. There have been five collegiate football deaths in the past three years, including one heat-stroke victim last October, according to Prof. Fred Mueller of North Carolina. Mueller compiles an annual survey called Football Injury Research.
"Heat has become our worst enemy," said Howard Coach Joe Taylor. "You can't get anything done when a kid's suffering from heat fatigue or exhaustion. If he's dehydrated and about to fall out, he's not listening. If he's not listening, you can't teach and you get nowhere."
Chuck Brown, the supervisor of physical education in Prince George's County public schools, sent out a memorandum to his high school football coaches warning them to use common sense in regard to the heat. He ordered all coaches to start practices no earlier than 5 p.m. rather than the scheduled 1:30 p.m.
In the old days, coaches who stuck their feet in water buckets during August two-a-days and dared their athletes to take a sip did so, they thought, for the good of the players. Air conditioning made them lazy, it was argued; discipline made them hard.
"If you drank water during practice when I was playing, you just weren't tough," said Gary Tranquill, Navy's coach. "Only sissies drank water. But no more. We give them all the water they want. We try to watch them closely and be sensible. On one hand, you want to push them and get them in shape. But, on the other, you can never be sure at what point to stop pushing. That's what's frightening more than anything: when what you might think is really helping them is really hurting them."
At the University of Virginia, the heat was so bad Saturday that Coach George Welsh canceled the afternoon practice. "I just didn't want to wear the kids out by putting them through it," he said, "especially after a pretty tough workout in the morning."
Maryland Coach Bobby Ross postponed Saturday afternoon's practice until early in the evening. Even though he mailed each player letters through the summer encouraging them to prepare physically and mentally to train in the heat when they reported in August, there appeared to be no way anyone could prepare for the suffocating afternoons that greeted them.
Earlier in the summer, after observing the Redskins suffer through long hours in the Pennsylvania heat, Taylor and the Howard coaching staff met and decided to push the morning practice up two hours, to 6.
"Some days," he said, "the sun's not even up and we're getting ready to practice. We figured it was the best way to accomplish all we possibly could this summer without losing players in this heat."
"When somebody dies the way the Auburn kid did you can't help but look at yourself and your own program," Tranquill said. "It bothers the hell out of you. The heat's your enemy and it's something I'm horribly fearful of this time of year."
Pratt died less than five hours after an 8 a.m. physical examination that pronounced him fit to play. The 99-degree heat in Auburn, Ala., was brutal even under trees when Pratt completed a quarter-mile sprint, complained of cramps, then collapsed.
"In my personal and professional opinion, this kind of accident could have occurred at any time strenuous activity was involved, even cutting grass," said Lee County Coroner Jon Williams.
Williams said there were no traces of drugs or other foreign substances in the body and the autopsy showed no indication of heart disease.
Pratt, a 5-foot-8, 211-pound junior, had a history of weight problems and was taken to a hospital last year with heat exhaustion after attempting to run the same tests. But Williams said he did not think Pratt should have been withheld from the drills this year.
"Based on his play last season, after the previous heat-related problem, his play in the spring, his preparation this summer and the physical he underwent Saturday morning, I see no reason why there should have been any reservation about his ability to participate in the endurance part of the physical," he said.
Auburn Coach Pat Dye said he and his staff would talk about changing the time of conditioning tests, which began about 11:30 a.m., but they would continue with the same practice periods.
"When you live in the South and play football, you are going to play in the heat. It is just a way of life," he said, adding that the team may have a doctor on hand for conditioning tests next year.
"Pratt died after running a test that almost all college programs require their kids go through," said Taylor. "We ran 15 350s and that's a lot tougher than running only three 440s. But we did it early in the morning, at around 6:30. That helped the kids out."
"In 21 years of coaching," Tranquill said. "I've never had a player collapse. When we report, we go through a 12-minute run and a test of 10 40s with 15-second intervals. You would think most college football players would report in shape. And most do."
Welsh said his test consisted of a 12-minute run and a sprint test of eight 40-yard dashes. "I don't think the Auburn test was especially tough," he said.
Most coaches now require their players to wear complete uniforms in the morning, when it's much cooler, and shorts in the afternoon. At Howard, drills that usually ran 30 minutes were cut to 15 minutes. Intense hitting drills also are alternated with teaching periods.
"It must be 140 degrees under a helmet," Taylor said. "If they want a drink, I let them drink. In the summer, you should be teaching a lot anyway. You should know who your hitters are from spring training."