Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

Camps remain tradition despite casualty count

July 28, 2002


Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer was sweating out two-a-day practices, sometimes in full pads. Florida freshman Eraste Autin was jogging back to the locker room after a voluntary summer workout.

Travis Stowers of Kirklin, Ind., was just trying to make his high school team.

They were among the football players who died last summer, victims of stifling heat.

Who will be the next poor soul to fall during practice this August? It's almost certain to happen somewhere, sometime.

For a sport played in the chill of fall and winter, football is obsessed with training in the summer, perhaps because that's the way it's always been done. So, despite all the mini-camps conducted throughout the offseason, teams feel obliged to gather their players at the end of July for camp.

For what? To get in shape?

Most players are already in shape. They work out year-round. They can always be found in training rooms during the offseason. Still, they choose to practice during the hottest time of the year.

"We had three deaths from heat stroke last year," said Dr. Fred Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. "We've had 20 in the last six years. I'm concerned with numbers like that."

Part of the problem is a macho mentality that permeates football, a condition carried over from the game's dark ages.

Players defy common sense, preferring to show how tough they are, how much they can take.

And with the heat beating down on them, somebody invariably dies.

There are ways around this problem.

"It's preventable," Mueller said. "Nice cold water. A nice break in the shade. Coaches have to be more concerned with preventive measures. Change the times of workouts. Cut back on the intensity."

Some of them do, choosing to hold their practices early and late, avoiding the hottest time of the day. Work gets done. Players are not coddled, but at least they are not endangered.

There are teams that back off when it comes to veterans who have been through the training camp grind often enough and can prepare themselves at their own pace.

Coach Marv Levy let veterans do that in Buffalo. When longtime Bills defensive end Bruce Smith arrived in Washington last season, he found an entirely different regimen under Marty Schottenheimer. It caused some major friction.

"We worked," Levy said. "We did our regular practices. But we were cognizant of the conditions. We took frequent breaks. If there was any sign of a problem, we stopped them. We listened to the medical staff."

The NFL was scarred by Stringer's death. The Vikings went from a playoff team to 5-11.

The league conducted symposiums on the heat issue and has demonstrated a heightened awareness of the problem. College football also is concerned.

Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, says coaches are getting smarter about the heat, building water breaks and rest periods into their practices, creating a safer environment for players

It was not that way when Teaff played his college football at tiny McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. In a more Spartan time for the game and its players, water breaks were viewed as being reserved for sissies. And yet, no players died in those days.

Teaff believes it has something to do with lifestyles.

"Maybe it's because we were accustomed to the heat," he said. "We all dug ditches and worked in the heat instead of sitting in air conditioned apartments playing Nintendo."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.