Enough's enough: Too many kids dying in the heat

August 4, 2011 - 7:30 PM
Paul Newberry

This Aug. 2, 2011 file photo shows football players taking a water break during practice at Carter-Riverside High School in Fort Worth, Texas. As a record heat wave sweeps across the South, high school football has been pummeled with one tragedy after another. Two players from Georgia drop dead. Another in South Carolina. Still another in Florida. Even a coach in Texas. (AP Photo/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brandon Wade)

ATLANTA (AP) — Glenn Jones is preparing to bury his 16-year-old son.

It never should've come to this.

"If you drove a tractor-trailer right through my heart, you would know how it feels," Jones said Thursday, struggling to hold back the tears. "That's exactly what it feels like."

Forrest Jones was a big, burly lineman who's life was cut short when he overheated during a voluntary workout for the upcoming high school football season. His body cooked, his organs shut down and he passed away Tuesday after trying futilely to hang on for just over a week in the hospital.

Tragically, he's not alone. In just the past week, three other high school players across the South have died in a record-breaking heat wave. Plus, an assistant coach in Texas succumbed to blistering temperatures that have regularly topped 100 degrees.

Enough's enough.

It's time for everyone — kids and coaches alike — to lose the macho attitude.

Sure, there are a myriad of things that can be done to greatly reduce the risk of heat-related deaths on the gridiron, from moving back the start of the season (why not?) to requiring certified athletic trainers at all high schools (not likely because of the cost) to requiring coaches be trained in first aid (a relatively cheap investment that could pay huge dividends).

We all know football is a tough game played by tough people. That's not going to change. Heck, we wouldn't have it any other way. But there's nothing wrong with sitting out the next play, nothing wrong with taking an extra sip of water.

Forrest Jones would probably be alive today if he'd taken that message to heart.

"He showed the signs. He needed to tell 'em, 'I'm tired,'" his father said. "We really need to get across to these kids that it doesn't make them a weak person to tell the coach you're tired and you need a break. It makes you a better person."

But attitudes are always the most resistant to change.

The day before Forrest Jones died, high schools across Georgia officially started football practice in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record. Who knows how many kids felt nauseous or lightheaded but just played their way through it?

"With these pads on, it's sooo hot — like a sauna," said Dominique Packer, a junior linebacker at Heritage High School in suburban Atlanta. "The heat just stays with you. It's hard. It's really hard."

His coaches did all they could. They scheduled water breaks every 15 minutes, mixed in some drills where the players could shed their helmets and pads, and even moved into the shade of some nearby pine trees during teaching sessions.

Still, there was a point when Packer felt his body breaking down. And, this being football, he kept it to himself.

"Man, you never want to tell a coach you can't go," he conceded. "A lot of us, we were like almost about to pass out the other day. But we didn't want to tell the coaches. So we went out there until our bodies just couldn't do it anymore. I've done that a couple of times."

Packer knows that sort of attitude could be a death sentence.

He just can't help himself.

After all, this is football.

Ron Courson is the director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia. He's one of the country's leading advocates for improving athlete safety at the college level. Now, he's trying to carry his message to the high schools.

Foremost, he wants every school to have at least one full-time certified athletic trainer on its staff. At the moment, less than half of them do; in Georgia, it's only about 30 percent.

Therefore, at the vast majority of high schools, kids begin practicing during the hottest time of the year without anyone on hand to detect the warning signs of heat-related ailments or provide the proper treatment when something does go wrong.

"The tragedy of this situation," Courson said, "is the vast majority of heat illnesses are preventable."

But, let's get real. It's highly unlikely that schools forced to lay off teachers and slash budgets during the economic downturn are going to suddenly come up with tens of thousands of dollars to hire athletic trainers.

The idea came up in Georgia a few years ago, only to get shot down in the Legislature.

"The education lobby was able to convince them that not every school can afford to do that," said Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the Georgia High School Association. "The situation has gotten worse now because of all the furloughs and layoffs and things of that sort. It would be very difficult to pass any kind of requirement that you had to have an athletic trainer, even though it's vitally important."

OK, let's look at some steps that would help right away and not necessarily break the bank:

— Delay the start of the season a few weeks, especially in the hottest regions of the country. There's just no need to be practicing football in 100-degree temperatures.

"Sometimes the most effective and far-reaching solutions are the simplest ones," said Dr. Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports medicine expert at Wake Forest University. "Heaven forbid, maybe we just need to subtract one game. It's not ideal, but it's better than subtracting a life."

— Know which athletes have the sickle cell trait, which makes them more susceptible to heat-related problems. Everyone is tested at birth for the blood abnormality, but few people keep up with the results or know the significance of having it. Rosenbaum advocates additional testing, if necessary, before a kid is allowed to play high school sports.

— Come up with a minimum national standard that all schools must adhere to for dealing with heat issues, instead of the hodgepodge of rules that differ from state to state, district to district. Every coach should be trained in first aid. Every school system should have an emergency plan to deal with a kid in distress.

At Georgia, Courson puts his staff through a training session each year using a 200-pound dummy. They must be able to load it into a cart and quickly get it to a pool that is kept at 50 degrees. That sort of treatment is absolutely vital when dealing with heat stroke — and it doesn't have to be high tech.

At the high school where Courson's son plays football, they use a horse trough filled with water and keep bags of ice nearby in case someone collapses.

"You've got to put them in ice up to neck level to cool them down," Courson said. "Cool first, then transport. If you wait until you get to the hospital, 20, 25, even 30 minutes may have transpired. Then, it may be too late to do anything."

It's not too late to prevent another Forrest Jones.

"I hope no parent," said his heartbroken father, "ever has to go through this again."

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry