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Dr. Lawrence Lemak talks about the importance of keeping athletes safe in sweltering heat conditions

Football Player Safety Becomes Burning Concern

By Steve Hummer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

These are the most dangerous days of the year to be a high school football player.

Practices ramp up just as summer’s blowtorch burns hottest. Kids who may or may not have been true to their off-season conditioning wrap themselves in heat-trapping pads and helmets and take to simmering fields. Their bodies never will be tested more than this moment.

Coaches know this, and they are sweating out another summer.

“This is the most stressful time of year, even more than the games,” said Terry Crowder, head coach at defending state Class AAAA champion Chattahoochee High.

“It’s constantly on my mind: God forbid that anything happens to one of our players.”

The worst has happened this summer to four young players scattered across the South. Last week, two Georgians — Locust Grove’s Forrest Jones and Fitzgerald’s D.J. Searcy — died following workouts. Before that, a 14-year-old South Carolina player similarly died. On July 27, a Miami-area high school football player collapsed and died after a training session. Pending autopsy results will reveal if summer’s swelter contributed to their deaths, as some suspect.

The news of these tragedies resonated across Georgia last week as teams opened practice amid one of the hottest summers on record. More than 30,000 teenagers in the state take part in the rite of high school football. Prior to last week, there had not been a heat-related death of a player in the state in five years.

“Bottom line: One is too many,” said University of Georgia researcher Mike Ferrera.

Despite an ever-growing awareness of the dangers of hot-weather training and the advent of guidelines that tailor practices to the conditions, players across the country still die. The recent spate of deaths has frustrated experts in the field who consider heat-related tragedies largely preventable.

Meanwhile, in the furnace of another southern summer, the latest generation of big men on campus continues to be forged.

Early to rise

Welcome to Thursday Morning Lights. Chattahoochee’s Crowder learned long ago that he couldn’t beat the heat, so he stopped trying. Several years ago, he decided to begin August practices in the early morning hours, training under stadium lights until the sun peeked over the rim of the stands.

At the beginning of last week, practice began as usual around 7 a.m. But so extreme was the heat and humidity that Crowder was having to either cut back on practice or stop altogether as climate readings exceeded levels considered safe. By midweek, he was ordering his players suited up and ready by 5:30 a.m. just so he could complete his scheduled work.

The concerns of parents certainly were aroused by the recent deaths. “The mommy issue is high right now,” senior running back/linebacker Jake Kingree said with a slight smile, “but I don’t think we have a lot to worry about.”

And players can feel for themselves the difference in the earlier start.

All parties made the transition to farmer’s work hours without too much carping, Crowder said. The team will continue on that schedule, he said, until the heat breaks, no matter how long that takes.

There was a rare reprieve on Thursday from the worst of the swelter, as passing showers stirred a welcome breeze. The temperature at the start of practice was 70 degrees.

Chattahoochee nevertheless stayed with the routine that it had in place to monitor the heat and deal with its effects. The school has the luxury of a full-time athletic trainer — one of 14 that the Gwinnett Medical Center provides to schools in the area.

It’s Tangela McCorkle’s job to oversee the players’ safety, and she takes her job seriously. “I’ve been with a lot of these kids since they were in the sixth grade,” she said. “They’re like my kids. Parents trust me to make sure they’re safe.”

Each morning, all 110 players (both JV and varsity) weigh in. They re-weigh at the end of practice. Any player showing a 3 percent or more weight loss from one day to the next — indicating excessive fluid loss — is held from practice.

Along with wraps and splints, McCorkle’s standard equipment includes both a hand-held psychrometer and a so-called wet bulb gauge that produce differing measurements of air temperature, humidity and radiant temperature. She takes readings from both every quarter hour. Operating from a chart that correlates these readings with suggested actions on the practice field, she alerts Crowder if he needs to make adjustments such as additional water breaks, more rest periods, stripping out of pads and helmets or even stopping practice altogether. She said the coach has always heeded the chart.

Change in approach

Hard-nosed coaches of the past may have scoffed at such perceived coddling, instead restricting their players’ water intake and holding grueling practices in order to test players’ commitment and build toughness. That mentality has had to change with the times.

“Any coach in this day and age who pushes through heat-related problems shouldn’t be coaching,” said Dr. Larry Lemak, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of the Birmingham-based National Center for Sports Safety. “He’s not smart enough to know that he’s not only putting his kids at risk, he’s putting himself [professionally and legally] at risk.”

Brookwood coach Mark Crews remembers his college coach ordering trainers to take their temperature readings in the shade. His high school coach used to ration water like it was Dom Perignon. “You wouldn’t do that today for a million dollars,” he said.

Thursday, Crews’ defending Class AAAAA champion Broncos began practice at a steamier time, 11:30 in the morning. Still, this day was not as sultry as the one before, with temperatures in the mid-80s compared to the 100-degree readings the athletic trainer was getting Wednesday on a back practice field.

Brookwood follows basically the same protocol as Chattahoochee. But there is no one set of standards for all schools in Georgia.

Following the heat-related death of a player in 2006, the Georgia High School Association directed each county school system to come up with its own plan.

Critics have stated the need for statewide regulation, with definite limits on practice, especially in August. One of the loudest of those is Douglas Casa, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. Stringer was the Minnesota Vikings lineman who died of heat stroke in 2001.

“No one wants to ever upset any football coach. It’s a constituency that knows nothing about medical and safety policies and yet they still rule the roost in terms of what the policies are going to be,” Casa said.

Specifically, Casa points to a set of seven guidelines for safe heat acclimatization that he helped author. They include having an athletic trainer on hand for every practice, as well as setting limits on early season practices — eliminating twice-a-day practices, setting time limits and barring practices in full pads.

Only New Jersey among the 50 states meets all seven of the criteria, Casa said. Georgia meets none of them.

Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the GHSA, disagrees with the assessment that the organization is unresponsive. He maintains a strong trust in coaches to know what is good for their players, and to strike the delicate balance between getting their young men ready and keeping them safe.

Swearngin listens when a coach like Crews says, “Some people think they are still dealing with the coaches of 30 years ago, the old Neanderthal guy who’s going to make you run sprints when it’s 9,000 degrees. We feel we do a great job of trying to protect our kids. We don’t really want someone to mandate what we do, because we feel we have medical professionals in place and policy in place where we can act professionally and safely.”

Ferrera, a UGA professor of kinesiology and curriculum director of athletic training, is currently completing a three-year heat study, gathering data from 25 practice fields around Georgia. The results will be available to the GHSA by early 2012 and will shape the organization’s heat policy in the future, Swearngin said.

The recent deaths across the South indicate that science still has a big chore in front of it.

“This past week is probably the worst week that we’ve had in the last 35 years in terms of that many kids dying in that short a period of time,” Casa said.

Such deaths madden researchers who maintain that heat stroke deaths could be practically eliminated with the proper precautions and rapid recognition and treatment of a player in trouble.

As this hot, hot August grinds on, none of the experts is saying anything to put parents, coaches or players at ease.

“This is a critical problem — and this heat isn’t over yet,” warned Lemak.