When fall football practice starts next month, Richard Montgomery High School coach Neal Owens will evaluate nearly 100 prospective players based on their on-field talent.
He will also keep a close eye on something else: the athletes’ hygiene.
“I don’t know if the kids will like it at first, but there is no doubt in my mind, Richard Montgomery will have the cleanest athletic facility in the county,” Owens said. “It’s often overlooked, but I have seen firsthand what types of bacteria can grow in the back of a locker for 30 days. So there is no way . . . that I’m going to have an outbreak or infection in my locker room. It could be crippling, not only for the kids’ well-being, but for your team’s success.”
Owens’s concern for cleanliness in the locker room goes beyond his coaching duties.
He also is the associate director of sales for Extreme Science, a fledgling Rockville-based company founded in late 2009 by four friends with local ties through business and high school coaching.
The company focuses on reducing the negative impact of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, and other hazardous infectious bacteria — such as ringworm and impetigo — that commonly are found in the sports environment. It helps organizations prevent or manage infections with a comprehensive risk assessment, treatment and monitoring of the client’s facility.
Owens’s partners in the business are Stacy Plum, an assistant cross country coach at the Bullis School; Tom Mulholland, the director of sales, who also is the Landon School’s defensive coordinator and a former Walter Johnson High School coach; and Mulholland’s wife, Niveen.
Extreme Science staff said the company has signed no contracts with local high schools. Plum, however, said it is attempting to get a “foot in the door” with athletics programs at several local high schools, colleges, professional teams and equipment providers.
William “Duke” Beattie, the director of athletics for Montgomery County public schools, said he was not aware of Extreme Science.
“We have a couple clients, but we won’t broadcast who they are,” Plum said. “We don’t want any client to be portrayed in any potential negative light.”
MRSA is most commonly found among athletes because they frequently experience close skin-to-skin contact and thus are at a higher risk for contracting bacterial infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MRSA infects more than 94,000 people per year; about 19,000 die from it.
MRSA is a staph bacterial infection, usually in the form of a skin infection, that is resistant to certain common antibiotics, including penicillin, amoxicillin and oxacillin. A skin infection is typically highlighted by painful red and swollen boils. Treatment may include a health-care professional draining the infected area and prescribing vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic. In extreme cases, surgery or amputation might be necessary.
In 2003, a high-profile MRSA outbreak occurred among five members of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. In 2008, former NFL wide receiver Joe Jurevicius contracted a staph infection while playing for the Cleveland Browns. He later sued the team for negligence; the lawsuit later was settled.
“It happens all over,” Owens said. “Everybody needs to do their best in helping prevent MRSA.”
Extreme Science also plans to supply educational materials and training geared towards coaches, athletes, facilities managers and athletics directors.
Plum and Niveen Mulholland are scientists with backgrounds in infectious diseases and adjunct faculty members at Johns Hopkins University, where they teach a course on emerging infectious diseases.
Plum graduated from Virginia Tech University with bachelor’s degree in biology. She is an immunologist by training with a specialty in microbiology and infectious diseases.
Niveen Mulholland attended George Washington University and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a doctorate in genetics. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Harvard Medical School in genetics and molecular biology before performing research in those fields at the National Institutes of Health.
The idea for Extreme Science was hatched through shared experiences coaching young people.
“One year at Walter Johnson, a wrestling kid came down with MRSA, but we caught it quickly,” Tom Mulholland said. “But the thing is now, kids are dirty and just cover up the smell with [the body spray] Axe. They don’t always shower right away or wash their pants or jerseys. As coaches, across the board, we need to do a better job enforcing this and informing them about the risks.”
To prevent MRSA and other bacterial infections, athletes are encouraged to shower as soon as possible after games and practice and wash all their clothing in hot water. Cuts should be cleaned and covered immediately, and personal hygiene items should not be shared.
At Richard Montgomery, Owens plans to organize groups of players who will take turns rotating throughout the season sanitizing the locker room and weight room.
“I guess Coach wants it done, and it has to be done, so we can’t complain,” said Rockets junior lineman Jordan Wilkerson, who also wrestles.
“I know the wrestling team is very aware of skin infections, so it’s good for football and other sports to pay attention. We are in such a small space with so many guys, we got to keep it clean.”