Keeping tabs on the heat
Coaches take precautions as temperatures stay high
The heat beats down on your tired body.
Coach warns you that running the play or agility incorrectly will result in more sprints after the drill.
Then there's your helmet. It isn't much of a cooling system as the muggy air hovers around your head and face.
And don't forget, you're lugging around between 8 and 10 more pounds with those pads on.
If a player is having extreme problems with this scenario, it could indicate a need to get in better shape. But as coaches have learned many times in the last few years, a player's struggle with the heat could result in death.
A study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in 2001 reported that 18 college or high school athletes have died from complications with heat since 1995. Then, six days after Florida freshman Eraste Autin died from heat complications, the NFL had its first heat casualty -- offensive tackle Korey Stringer died July 31, 2001.
Err on the side of caution
The constant struggle between getting the most out of an athlete and knowing their physical limits came in 1998 when two Kansas high school players died because of heat complications just hours apart. Both were from the Wichita area.
Matthew Whittredge, who was 15, played for Towanda-Circle, while Robert "Alex" Barrett, 17, played for Wichita Southeast. The two were about 30 miles apart on an August day that exceeded 100 degrees.
On Monday, McLouth High had an early morning football practice, but a second practice scheduled for 3:30 p.m. was moved to 6 p.m. because of the heat.
MHS coach Harry Hester said the Kansas State High School Activities Association sends out information on determining heat indexes and what precautions should be taken during practice.
For Hester's team, temperature decides when they will practice.
"If it's 95 or higher, we go at 6," Hester said.
On Monday in Tonganoxie, the Chieftains practiced from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
"We avoided the real scorching heat," Elston said.
The fourth-year THS coach said high participation in summer lifting and conditioning showed in the first practices, but he also is aware that the heat can be a larger factor for some players.
"The heat's harder on the heavier guys," Elston said. "We managed to avoid it today for the most part."
Elston knows that 300-plus pound players aren't really built for extreme heat, but he said players have to prepare themselves in advance for the August practices.
"You can't start drinking water on Sunday night and expect it to work Monday," Elston said. "You can't drink enough at practice to make up for not having enough stored up."
During practice, though, water always is available.
"We have water running constantly," Elston said. "They can go at anytime."
Pinpointing the problem
It's difficult to determine why deaths have been so prevalent in the last eight years.
Football players overall have gotten bigger through the years, which could provide some explanation.
And according to Hester, a change in summer jobs could be a factor as well.
"A lot of kids are working in the air conditioning instead of throwing hay or doing construction," Hester said.
In the day of Internet, high-tech video game systems and gigantisize fast food meals, youth can find themselves becoming more inactive and using worse eating habits.
Back in my day
Water breaks are more available for today's football players -- just ask Elston.
"When I played you got a handful of ice every hour and salt tablets after practice," Elston said.
And, when players had rare water breaks, coaches made sure they washed out their mouth and spit out the water.
That was to prevent cotton-mouth, but Elston thought they had a different agenda.
"It was torture, maybe that was it," Elston said. "Our guys are nearly taking a bath in it."
Hester tells his players to fill up a gallon jug with water, put it in the refrigerator and drink it after practices.
Elston, meanwhile, urges players to drink a half-ounce for every pound they weigh.
But the coaches share other common sense as well -- potassium in bananas will help cut down on cramping, while downing soft drinks won't help the body regroup.
Supplements have become more popular in recent years as a way to strengthen one's body, but the coaches are cautious of any enhancing supplements.
Hester said players must first clear any products with him. Elston, meanwhile, said there's a trade-off with many of those products.
"Those things do a very good job of what they're designed to do, but they also put a lot of stress on the body," Elston said.
Asthma and the heart
Not all football deaths have come because of the heat -- or because of weight.
In February 2001, Florida State's Devaugn Darling, a linebacker, died after a voluntary workout. A team physician determined that Darling had a cardiac arrythmia, while Northwestern defensive back Rashidi Wheeler died after an asthma attack during a conditioning drill.
Both players had different causes of death, but neither weighed anywhere near 300 pounds.
Autin, the Florida Gator who did die from heat stroke complications, was a 6-foot-2 fullback who weighed 250 pounds.
During the two weeks of practice before the first game of the season, coaches must implement formations, defensive schemes and condition players the most.
With that in mind, they also must keep tabs on any signs of heat exhaustion so that more deaths like those in Wichita aren't repeated.
Elston, though, said those early September games -- even at 7 p.m. -- have reached in to the 100s at game time.
"They didn't bother to cancel any games then," Elston said.
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