Because of August's extreme heat and humidity, Washington area high school football coaches contend that practice is a nightmare for all concerned. In the wake of the death of McLean junior David L. Robinson, who died of a heart condition during Monday morning's opening day of practice, coaches have become even more concerned about the safety of their players.
"I wish we could skip August altogether," said Bill McGregor, beginning his ninth year as head coach at DeMatha. "You know August is the killer month and the time of the year that scares you the most. You know it's going to be 90 degrees every day but you have to be out there to get the kids in condition. Most of the coaches conduct two-a-day workouts, the first in the morning and the second in the evening, when the heat is not that bad.
"The number one priority is to have plenty of water available. Kids know they can stop at any time and get a drink. We have a full-time trainer on the field and we take ample breaks during the two-hour practices. And we take the kids at their word. If they say they are winded or hot, they stop and rest. You don't like working in the heat, but you have to do it to condition the players."
Most area schools opened practice this week facing 90-degree heat and high humidity. Metro Conference and Maryland schools begin workouts today. Virginia schools started Monday and Interhigh League teams began Aug. 6.
Most players practice in helmets, shorts and T-shirts for the first week. Two-a-day workouts usually last about two weeks.
"Most of our schools hold workouts only in the evening," Anacostia Coach Willie Stewart said. "But we started a week earlier to get the players in condition. A couple of my kids called me last night when they heard about Robinson. They were concerned, their parents are concerned and I understand that. You worry about these kids when it's hot like this.
"You can only make sure each kid has had a thorough physical examination, make sure there is plenty of water on the field. I don't mind a high water bill. You do everything possible to ensure safe conditions. That's all you can do."
Potomac (Va.) Coach Bill Brown knows the agony McLean Coach Karl Buckwalter feels. In November 1986, Chuck Coles, a wide receiver for Potomac, died during a game. Brown said had it not been the last game of the year he had serious doubts he could have returned to the field the next day.
"Fortunately, it was a playoff game and we lost," he said. "So it was our final game of the season and we had a whole year to get over it. Everyone was devastated and the shock made it very difficult to put things in perspective for a long time. My first feeling was that I didn't want to coach again. A couple of players said they would never play again.
"You start to second-guess yourself. Did I do everything right? Did I prepare the kids properly? You become even more sensitive. . . .
"My heart bleeds for Buckwalter, because he is a first-year coach and I know this will be very tough on him. We are all in this business because we love kids and something like this affects all of us."
"Two hours is about the maximum time you can work," McGregor said, "not only because of the physical aspect but because of the retention period."
West Potomac Coach Dan Meier said he sometimes works longer than two hours in the evenings.
"The heat is something all of us have to deal with, but I would rather work now than in December," he said. "You can't do anything when it is icy and cold. You play games in September when it is hot and you have to practice now so the kids can get acclimated to the heat."
Tom Clark, football coach and athletic director at Bishop McNamara, said he ran a "comprehensive summer program," including a summer touch league in June, without contact or equipment "so that the players report in good condition. If they're out of shape it becomes more difficult."
He said he has three practices daily, with the total practice time shorter than normal two-a-days.
The McLean football team and coaching staff, again declining to comment on Robinson's death, practiced yesterday morning.
"We discussed the situation with the coaches, administrators and the superintendent's office and felt, after counseling the youngsters and talking with parents, we should return to normalcy as soon as possible," said Bruce Patrick, coordinator for athletics and student activities for Fairfax County.
"There are only 22 practice days before the first game and schools can only work on 20 of those to allow some time for the kids to rest. Surely, one of those days will be used for the funeral and the county will provide transportation for the entire team.
"Everyone is torn up about this, particularly Coach Buckwalter, who had a special relationship with the kid. I looked at the years I coached and I had some bad injuries. But I can thank my lucky stars nothing like this happened to me."
Brown said the feeling of losing a player never goes away.
"Something like this makes all coaches think," he said.