No one should forget that deadly week in the summer of 2011 when two high school football players and one high school football coach died from heat-related causes. That following summer, in 2012, athletic administrators were feeling a different kind of heat: parents of the two football players who died in 2011, Isaiah Laurencin in Florida and Don'terio J. Searcy in Georgia, sued their respective county boards, asserting that the coaches pushed the boys too hard. Both schools, Miramar (Fla.) High School and Fitzgerald (Ga.) High School, boast prominent football programs. And it's not just the schools and county boards drawing the legislative ire of angry parents.
Prior to the deaths of Laurencin and Searcy, in 2009, high school football coach David Jason Stinson went to trial in the death of 15-year-old lineman Max Gilpin. Charged with wanton endangerment and reckless homicide, Stinson was ultimately found not guilty, but by no means did that declare the coach innocent. On the day Gilpin collapsed, Stinson had his team running sprints in 94-degree weather.
I, too, had my own battle with extreme heat while competing in the first cross-country race of my high school sophomore season. Like Gilpin's situation, the day featured 90-plus-degree temperatures. The moment I finished the three-mile race was the last time I was on my feet for at least half an hour, as I suffered such intense heat stroke that I was essentially unconscious as I crossed the line. But I was 135 pounds and running in little clothing. Many of these football players are more than 200 pounds running in pads and/or helmets.
Exertional heat stroke is one of the three leading causes of death in sports, and as one might expect, the leading cause of death in the summer. Consider this: from 2005 to 2009, there were more heat-stroke-related deaths (18) than during any other five-year period in the 35 years prior. The National Athletic Trainers' Association, which supplied that data, estimates that there will be between 20 and 22 deaths from 2009 to 2014, when those numbers are ultimately compiled. And according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, as of 2012, there had been 40 high school football players who have died from heat stroke in less than 20 years.
Preventing exertional heat illnesses is a top priority for those coaches and administrators working with student-athletes during these dog days of summer, and most are taking the necessary steps to keep their athletes hydrated, adjusting practices based on environmental conditions, and employing body-cooling technology such as oversized, powerful misting fans.
So why are heat-related deaths rising?
Recognizing that there is still considerable work that needs to be done in this area, NATA, for the first time in 12 years, has updated its exertional heat illnesses position statement. Presented at NATA's 65th Clinical Symposia & AT Expo in June, the position statement provides valuable information on recognition, treatment and prevention of exertional heat illnesses, including how high school football coaches should schedule their traditional two-a-day practices prior to the start of the season:
- Days 1-2: Single three-hour practice or single two-hour practice and single one-hour field session. During this time, only helmets may be worn.
- Days 3-4: Single three-hour practice or single two-hour practice and single one-hour field session. During this time, only helmets and shoulder pads may be worn.
- Day 5: Single three-hour practice or single two-hour practice and single one-hour field session. During this time, full equipment may be worn.