By R.J. Anderson
Preseason is the most dangerous time of year for football players. The games haven't started yet, but day after day, high school and college players encounter the hardest-hitting opponent they'll face all season: the blazing sun. Already, there have been multiple deaths at the high school and college level that can be attributed to working out and practicing in unsafe conditions. The sad part is that in many cases, heat illness casualties could have been prevented.
High temperatures combined with the helmets, shoulder pads, and various padding--and athletes who aren't used to the conditions--provide the ingredients for heat illness' dangerous recipe. Here is a recap of the unfortunate incidents that have occurred across the country this preseason.
In Georgia, two 16-year-old football players, in two separate incidents, died within hours of one another after working out in sweltering conditions. On Tuesday, Aug. 2, Fitzgerald (Ga.) High School's Donteria Searcy was found unresponsive in his cabin at about 11:15 a.m. after his team had finished a morning workout during a summer training camp held in Florida. Searcy was taken to a nearby hospital, but attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, hours later, Forest Jones, 16, a 235-pound center at Locust Grove High School in Henry County, Ga., died after spending a week in a coma. The day before Jones and Searcy died, high schools across Georgia officially started football practice in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record.
Doctors believe Jones may have had a heat stroke or heat exhaustion, according to his family. The incident began when Jones passed out and hit his head while walking to the locker room after a voluntary practice the previous Monday. Shortly afterward, his kidneys and liver shut down and Jones slipped into a coma before passing away Tuesday.
The Georgia High School Association issued a statement after Tuesday's deaths. Ralph Swearngin, Executive Director of the GHSA, wrote:
"The GHSA is beginning the third year of a comprehensive 3-year study on heat illness and football participation that is being conducted around the state. This study is being conducted by Michael Ferrara at the University of Georgia, and is attempting to get scientific data on the relationship of heat and football activities in order to reduce the risk of heat illness during football workouts.
"GHSA coaches have a great deal of information available to them about the importance of hydrating the players before, during and after workouts - and about modifying or canceling workouts when conditions warrant. Most even institute a practice of weighing players before and after practice to identify those who need more hydration."
Days earlier in South Carolina, Lamar High School rising freshman Tyquan Brantley collapsed after the second day of practice during the team's preseason camp. Complaining of cramps as he left the field, the 14-year-old died at the hospital hours later.
Players had on helmets but no pads and were working out for 20 minutes at a time before taking a five minute water break, Audrey Childers, Darlington County School System's public information officer, told SCNow.com. She added that Brantley had been participating in the school's summer conditioning program three days a week. According to Childers, the school system is investigating the incident to make sure the school system's hydration policy for sports and band practices was followed. As of press time, there was no official ruling on the cause of death.
Two weeks ago, Isaiah Laurencin, a 17-year-old at Miramar (Fla.) High School, experienced cramping near the end of the second session of a two-a-day practice. He also began to vomit. Miramar Head Coach Damon Cogdell told Laurencin to sit out the rest of the workout and grab some water. Laurencin told Cogdell that his cramps were worse than any he'd had before, so an ambulance was called and the player's mother was alerted.
Laurencin then went into cardiac arrest. Hours later, he died at the hospital surrounded by teammates. Laurencin, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound lineman, had already received three scholarship offers and was looking forward to continuing his career collegiately.
According to the Miami Herald, Florida rules dictate that full-contact practices cannot begin until Aug. 8. Helmets, official jerseys, and padding cannot be worn at school facilities until then. However, there are no rules about how many workout sessions can be held before the Aug. 8 starting date, or rules regulating hydration and temperature.
Following Laurencin's death, Broward County Athletic Association officials told its high school coaches they wouldn't be allowed to hold practices from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. But those rules wouldn't have helped Laurencin--when Miramar's training began at 5 p.m. Tuesday, the temperature was around 88 degrees with a heat index of 96 degrees.
Players aren't the only ones at risk from heat illness. On Tuesday, Plano Prestonwood (Texas) High School Assistant Coach Wade McLain died from a combination of heat exposure and heart disease after collapsing Monday during a break at the team's first preseason practice. As temperatures approached 100 degrees, CPR and an automated external defibrillator failed to revive the 55-year-old coach.
"I was out there on the field with the coaches and team for a while yesterday and Coach McLain was very active and being himself, having a good time coaching," Prestonwood Baptist Church pastor Jack Graham told KDAF-TV in a prepared statement. "They had been stopping regularly for water and air-conditioning breaks, and during one break he became ill and collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital, where he passed away. We all realize life is a gift and this is one of those times when someone left unexpectedly."
"At 11 a.m. it starts getting ridiculously hot," Kerens (Texas) High School Coach Russell Anderson told the Corsicana Daily Sun. "The biggest part as a coach is you're busy coaching, and then when you get a drink, you're thinking about making sure the kids are getting hydrated and you don't think about yourself."
To help keep your athletes safe from heat illness this summer, check out "Ahead of the Pack," from our June/July issue. It features insight on the latest research from the Korey Stringer Institute.
R.J. Anderson is the Online Editor at Training & Conditioning.