By Matt Popchock
When former Ohio State lineman and NFL star Korey Stringer died of heat stroke at Minnesota Vikings training camp, it made us think. Now it’s time for us to think again.
In just a few days, football teams throughout the WPIAL will begin full-fledged preseason workouts, and a number of high school football teams elsewhere in the country have already begun theirs. Unfortunately, for some of these student-athletes, tragedy has interrupted their annual rite of passage.
Wade McLain, an assistant football coach at Prestonwood Christian High School in Plano, Texas, collapsed during two-a-days and was pronounced dead a short time later Monday evening. He was 55.
The cause of death, though not confirmed, is believed to be heat-related; the greater Dallas area has experienced an entire month’s worth of consecutive triple-digit high temperatures.
Last Saturday, the high in Lamar, Alabama was 101 degrees. Lamar High School freshman Tyquan Brantley was pronounced dead that evening after collapsing during a morning practice.
A few days earlier, in Mirimar, Florida, Isaiah Laurencin, a senior and Division I prospect out of Mirimar High School died shortly after collapsing during practice. Once again, the cause of death is not known at this time; having said that, recent temperatures in the area have stayed in the 90’s on a pretty regular basis.
Ironically, these all happened right around the tenth anniversary of Stringer’s passing, which has come and gone this week.
My condolences go out to the families, and to anyone involved with the three aforementioned programs. I certainly do not accuse those who run these programs of negligence, because there is no evidence to suggest these victims were not handled properly (not yet, anyway). They’re simply trying to best prepare their teams for the rigors of the upcoming season.
But that is not to say that things can’t be done by prep football programs all over America to prevent these sad stories from happening. These tragedies don’t just happen. They’re caused. Football program administrators everywhere need to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they’re doing to beat the heat.
Someone once said that the will to win means nothing without the will to prepare. Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak, one of the most successful football coaches in WPIAL history, has always excelled at having his team prepared.
Cherpak, for all his courtesy and congeniality, is also a hard-nosed coach notorious for his three-a-days that usually are held right before the start of each season. If you play football for “Cherps,” you’d better believe that, ultimately, you’re going to be in the best shape of your life.
I can honestly say I’ve never heard a bad word about the way he conducts these practices, which tells me he’s doing his duty as coach and athletic director to promote a healthy environment, despite the fact his players are worked extra hard during the hottest time of the calendar year.
Running on the cross-country team for John Wilkie, who founded the varsity program at North Hills and still coaches it, could be a similarly difficult experience for me and my teammates in the summer months. I would argue that, on some days, his practices could be as difficult to endure as some of the races I ran.
However, Coach Wilkie, to his credit, stuck to us like glue. He always made sure we were safe and properly hydrated at all times when working out at North Park, or in heavily-trafficked areas near our school.
Most importantly, he helped us rehabilitate very carefully when one of us appeared injured, and he was never, ever shy about rescheduling summertime workouts for either earlier or later in the day, not even at the last minute, due to extreme heat. But even though he was a cautious coach, it didn’t change the fact that we were usually a very well-conditioned team.
In the wake of these tragedies, my hat goes off to high school coaches everywhere, in every sport, who walk that line successfully the way he did. In my own example, and in other walks of athletic life, I believe there are lessons to be learned.
One of the stipulations of the new labor agreement between the NFL and its players was new restrictions on the amount of time teams can spend practicing during training camp. Two-a-days have been pared down, and I seriously think high schools should look at doing the same, at least during heat waves.
Furthermore, I implore coaches everywhere to allow even more break time for their players as temperatures rise, and I implore governing bodies like the WPIAL and PIAA to hold school officials accountable for doing so (not that those governing bodies wouldn’t anyway, I’m sure). In fact, if the high temperature reaches the century mark, either practice earlier or later than you normally would, or cancel that particular practice altogether.
If time and money becomes an issue, I would encourage nearby schools and neighboring districts to work with one another in terms of sharing facilities at certain times of day so that players can train under appropriately healthy circumstances. I’m sure these schools would be willing to help in the interest of promoting universal player safety, to say nothing of common sense.
An unfortunate aspect of human nature is that sometimes it takes a horribly negative event to bring about positive change. It took the death of Stringer for the NFL to take steps to better ensure player safety at training camps. It’ll probably take the deaths of these three individuals for schools to remember that preparation to play any sport should never come with such casualties.
Curbing the way high school football practices are conducted may raise concerns about other physical risks, and about the level of play in general, but when temperatures are at their worst, those concerns should be minimal. Before you can worry about beating your opponent, you must first worry about beating the heat.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)