Schools in the Tampa Bay area are reviewing policies and wondering whether more athletic trainers are needed after the heat stroke death of Middleton High incoming freshman Hezekiah B. Walters during a summer football practice.

Walters, 14, was the third high school football player in the state to die during summer training in the past five years, joining Sebastian River’s William Shogran Jr. (2014) and Fort Myers Riverdale’s Zach Martin-Polsenberg (2017).

“How many more kids need to die before we decide it’s necessary to have full-time athletic trainers at every school, year-round?” said Erik Nason, president of the Athletic Trainers Association of Florida.

The University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer institute ranked Florida fifth nationally for the job it’s done implementing safety policies that prevent death in student-athletes. However, the state lags in the staffing of athletic trainers. Of the 738 public schools in Florida surveyed by the Korey Stringer Institute, only 340 had full-time trainers on staff.

Pasco is the only county in the area that has full-time trainers, year-round, for its 13 public high schools, at a cost of $300,000 per year. Each Pasco County school also has immersion tubs for cooling down, and trainers are supplied with data thermometers that can check the core temperature of athletes who show signs of overheating.

“It’s a lot of money out of the school budget for the county, but it’s something that’s worth it for the safety of our student-athletes,” Pasco County athletic director Matt Wicks told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve even extended hours (35 or more each week) so trainers can be there more in the summer.”

Pinellas County contracts with local hospitals or physical therapy offices. The contract Pinellas has with BayCare increased the hours from 20 to 25 per week that trainers spend at each school for practices and games. It is up to the school’s administrators to determine how those hours are handled.

“It’s a relevant conversation to have given what happened at Middleton,” Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett said of full-time trainers. “In theory, conditioning, especially in football, should not be as strenuous as it is during the preseason and regular season. But the short answer to that is schools would have to pay trainers on their own for any extra hours they would be there in the summer.”

Nason is aiming for a legislative solution. He’s lobbying for a state-wide mandate that would require full-time athletic trainers at every high in the state. He said the idea that funds aren’t available to meeting the need is a cop out.

“School districts keep crying about the cost, but at what price?” Nason said. “What’s more valuable than the safety and well-being of student-athletes? Having a trainer is not foolproof. Things can still happen. But it is a big preventable measure to keep these deaths or other heat-related illnesses from happening.” 

Andy Berg is Executive Editor of Athletic Business.