It used to be that deaths like that of 16-year-old David L. Robinson would result from stupidity. Coaches would indulge in macho silliness like refusing to let players drink water during long practices on 95-degree, 80 percent humidity days. Stan Lavine, team physician for the University of Maryland and formerly of the Redskins, recalled that in his days as a schoolboy player the coaches simply didn't know better.

"You weren't allowed to drink water, you were told to spit it out," Lavine said yesterday.

Now, coaches attend workshops and conferences; it's mandatory in most places. Trainers, who used to be considered a luxury -- especially at the high school level -- are just about always nearby. The sports medicine phenomenon has pushed the human body to limits previously thought implausible, while at the same time saving careers and lives.

All these advances, in fact, are what make Robinson's death on Monday seem so much more catastrophic. When a 16-year-old loses his life during the first workout of the high school football season, we want answers. Every year it seems several teenagers die during or just after football practice.

Can't we do something about this? As advanced as sports medicine is, isn't there some examination that should have been administered to catch what appears to be a congenital heart disease? Isn't there something more the school could have done?

Sadly enough, the answer may be no.

"It's discussed at every single sports medicine conference or seminar," a frustrated Lavine said. "Unquestionably, the sports medicine phenomenon has helped tremendously in detecting congenital heart diseases . . . There is a tendency to blame the coach, but coaches are informed and aware now. There doesn't seem to be any negligence involved here. It wasn't heat-related. This young man could have suffered an arrhythmia {irregular heartbeat} at any time.

"If you talk to the American Heart Association, they will tell you the tests that should be done, then they will tell you that if the result is abnormal, additional tests that should be done. How much do you ask of the high school? It's such a difficult question."

Robert Bonow, deputy chief of cardiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, points out that there are tests available to detect hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that can cause death in young people like Robinson. But would it be feasible for every athlete at a high school to receive an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram at the start of a school term?

The costs of each test vary, but Bonow guesses an echocardiagram here might cost "several hundred dollars per test. Clearly, this is a major issue. The cost analysis to find the one in a thousand or less would be very expensive for a high school, or college for that matter.

"And suppose you do administer the test; there are other things that could happen {to the heart} which would not be detected. Suppose you're in hot, muggy weather and there is a heat-related {heart} arrest. Rhythm might then become abnormal . . . That would not have been detected, necessarily, by having an EKG or an echocardiogram. It's not foolproof.

"To perform every conceivable test on every single individual is not realistic, unfortunately," Bonow said.

Still, Bonow searches for a solution. "It's an unresolved issue . . . While I'm not ready to recommend mass screening, I don't want to come down too hard on one side or the other. One school might test for years {at a massive expense} and not find one abnormality, but it clearly would have been worth it for {McLean} high school. It's very visible, very tragic."

If EKGs and echocardiograms are not sure-fire detectors, you know the basic physical exam will miss most congenital heart-related diseases unless the athlete's heart has a murmur.

Lavine said that hospitals don't even require EKGs or echocardiograms to be administered before surgery. "I get them on everybody, and every now and then come up with an abnormality," he said. "Chris Patton, the young man {on the basketball varsity} who died at the University of Maryland {from Marfan's Syndrome}, I had operated on his knee the year before, and his EKG and stress test were normal."

Still, parents who can afford to do so ought to have their children undergo such exams, especially if they are athletically inclined, and especially if there is any history of heart disease in the family. But there are no foolproof solutions.

If there were, Chris Patton would probably be alive, as would Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers, as would McLean's David Robinson. Until there are some solutions, news will come across the wire that a youngster at play has collapsed and died. To suggest that our kids stay away from sports, football particularly, on the off-chance they might have an undetectable heart disease would be as plausible as telling him not to seek a driver's license on his 16th birthday.

We've grown so accustomed to getting to the bottom of everything that when we can't find the bottom line it just heaps frustration on the grief we already feel. Such is the likely end to this saga.