Joe Wills jogs over to a water cooler during a break from football practice at Gonzaga College High School. With overcast skies and temperatures today in the 80s, the varsity football team at the all-boys Jesuit school near the U.S. Capitol has a rare reprieve from the scorching 90-degree heat and thick humidity that greeted players as summer practice began in August.
“I just make sure to drink a lot of water,” the 17-year-old senior tackle says, his practice jersey already damp with sweat at 9 a.m. “It was real hot last week.”
While most players rarely worry about the heat as they compete for playing time and starting positions, national athletics groups say that monitoring players when temperatures and humidity reach potentially dangerous levels is a serious responsibility.
National Association for Sport and Physical Education officials say that high school football players may be most at risk for heat-related problems because coaches at that level often are not trained in sports medicine.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reports that 14 high school football players, two college football players, and one semi-pro player died from heatstroke from 1995 to 2000. The deaths of three more players this summer were also linked to hot weather.
Fred Mueller, the research center’s director, said such deaths are preventable and that too many coaches have their teams practicing in dangerous heat. “It concerns me that some coaches aren’t as attentive to the heat as they should be,” he said.
The issue drew national attention last month when Korey Stringer, a 27-year-old Pro Bowl tackle with the Minnesota Vikings, died from heatstroke after a preseason workout. That same day, Aug. 1, a high school player in Indiana died after collapsing during practice in hot weather. He was rushed to the hospital with a temperature of 108 degrees.
And an 18-year-old University of Florida freshman died of heat-related causes in July after he collapsed after running sprints at a voluntary football-conditioning workout. Last year in Detroit, a 15-year-old high school football player died of heatstroke while attending a three-day conditioning camp. In 1998, two high school football players in Wichita, Kan., died of heat-related causes across town from each other on the same stifling summer afternoon. The parents of one filed a lawsuit against the school district for damages, claiming that coaches acted with negligence in not ensuring a safer practice environment. The Kansas Supreme Court is now deliberating that case.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that each high school have at least one certified athletic trainer. But only 34 percent of high schools nationwide have one, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
“Certified athletic trainers ... are not a luxury, but rather an essential part of the school’s quality sports program,” said Judy Young, the executive director of NASPE, which is based in Reston, Va. “If high schools take the responsibility of having athletic activities, they must also take the responsibility of properly caring for the athletes.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations recommends that all high school athletes have physical exams. It also suggests scheduling high school workouts so that players are given a gradual introduction to hot weather, and having unlimited amounts of water available for players.
“There are no excuses for heatstroke deaths if the proper precautions are taken,” the Indianapolis-based federation states on its Web page in outlining precautions for dealing with hot weather.
Water, Water, Water
Here at Washington’s Gonzaga High, athletic officials say they have seen no serious heat-related illnesses. “We have stressed to the kids that they need to sit out if they are feeling bad,” said Gonzaga’s head football coach, Kenneth Lucas Jr.
Water breaks are scheduled consistently throughout practice. All players are weighed before and after practice to monitor weight loss. Summer practice, which includes scheduled weightlifting sessions, runs from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. before players break for lunch and come back for another hour at 3 p.m.
A former University of Delaware football player, Mr. Lucas acknowledged that the culture of football, which views playing through pain as a badge of toughness, often inhibits some players from stepping aside for a rest because they don’t want to be perceived as weak.
Such thinking has faded somewhat since his own playing days, he said, as coaches and players have become more attentive to heath and fitness issues. “Years ago, you didn’t have that many water breaks,” Mr. Lucas said. “It’s just a different day and age.”
In her fourth year as the athletic trainer for Gonzaga, Penny Lynch is the person players see when muscles ache or strain, when bodies are pushed to the limit through the wear and tear of competition. During summer practice, she works with the football, soccer, and cross-country teams.
Ms. Lynch is the first full-time trainer the high school has had in its history. But a few years ago, the trainers of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, the league Gonzaga plays in, began requiring all league schools to have a trainer. Players also are required to have physicals before playing football. A doctor is present at every game.
Using a machine called a sling psychrometer, Ms. Lynch measures the temperature and relative humidity levels every day. A chart tells her when conditions are dangerous, and she advises coaches about adjustments to take during practice.
In the training room last month, the air conditioning was full blast and a refrigerator was stocked with sports drinks to help players replenish fluids lost during workouts. Ms. Lynch said there had been no serious health problems this summer because of the heat. “Mostly I get athletes who are cramping, but if they’re coming over many times, I end up pulling them for the day,” she said.
Outside at practice, Ricky Greenwalt sat on a cooler with an ice pack under his knee. Heat hadn’t forced him to take a break; the sophomore, who plays tailback, had strained his knee during the previous practice, but thought it would heal on its own over the weekend.
A few minutes later, Coach Lucas saw his player on the sidelines. “What’s up, Ricky?” he asked. The player explained the injury and told the coach he didn’t ice his knee over the weekend. The coach told him he needed to ice down any time he felt discomfort.
“We can’t be macho,” the coach said. “We need bodies out there. We don’t want to be the walking wounded the first game day.”