If your most strenuous physical activity this summer has been the occasional long walk to the refreshment stand at the local multiplex, then you need to be especially careful when getting in gear for the fall sports season.
For the 1.5 million teen-agers who suit up to play high school and junior high school football every August, it may seem like the worst thing that could happen is to not make the team or, worse yet, get whipped with a wet towel in the locker room after practice.
But the hot, humid late summer weather combined with players’ heavy padding can add up to a formula for tragedy.
Take the case of Craig Lobrano, 17, an all-state football player at Varina High School in Varina, Va. Thirty minutes into an early September practice last year he collapsed from heatstroke. The temperature was only 77 degrees, but the humidity was 85 percent. Lobrano died two days later.
Lobrano is one of 20 young football players who have died of heat-related causes since 1995. Three players died of heatstroke last year, and 100 have died of heatstroke since 1960, according to study released last February by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Too often, athletes eager to impress coaches and teammates dismiss the warning signs their bodies are give them.
Joshua Krenz, now 21, played high school football for four years in Fall Creek, Wis. He says he saw few of his teammates take themselves out of a practice or a game because of dehydration or heat exhaustion.
“I think there was this attitude that guys wanted to show they were tough, either to impress their teammates or to impress the coach,” Krenz said.
What makes these heat-related deaths especially tragic is that they could be avoided, says Frederick O. Mueller, co-author of the football deaths study and chair of the American Football Coaches Committee on Football Injuries.
“There is no excuse for any number of heatstroke deaths since they are all preventable with the proper precautions,” Mueller said. “Every effort should be made to continuously educate coaches concerning the proper procedures and precautions when practicing or playing in the heat.”
Football players are at an even greater risk of heatstroke than other athletes because they wear so much padding, explained Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. He added, however, that athletes in all sports — including other fall sports such as cross country — are at risk when training in hot, humid weather.
Krenz said the Fall Creek High School football team’s practices began in early August, when temperatures would hit highs in the low 90s or upper 80s. Practices were held in the mornings or at night to make it easier on players, Krenz said, but it was still hard.
“We took breaks every half hour or 40 minutes for water and to rest,” he said.
“Thirst is the first sign of dehydration,” Gotlin said. “By that time, you’re already a little bit dehydrated.” Gotlin, who coaches younger football players as a hobby, said players should receive breaks every 15 to 20 minutes for a quick breather and cold water or electrolyte drinks like Gatorade.
Mueller advised that 15- to 30-minute rest periods be provided for each hour of practice.
Krenz, now a senior at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, also said many players arrived in practice out of shape and unprepared for the level of activity football practices require.
“The biggest problem, I think, was that guys spent all summer going to the beach or not doing anything,” Krenz said. “Then they’d come to football practice and try to go at it for a couple of hours like they were in perfect shape. You just can’t do that.”
This is why Mueller recommends that coaches “acclimatize athletes to heat gradually by providing graduated practice sessions for the first seven to 10 days and other abnormally hot or humid days.”
All players should have a complete physical exam before the season begins, Mueller said. Krenz said that players at his school were required to have a physical every two years, and he knew of at least one player who did not return because he failed the physical.
According to Mueller’s report, signs of heat illness and dehydration include nausea, incoherence, fatigue, weakness, vomiting, cramps, a flushed appearance, blurred vision, unsteadiness and profuse sweating.
Aside from heatstroke, another danger to football players enduring practices in August heat is the risk of heart problems. Gotlin said that problems like cardiac arrhythmia — an irregular heartbeat — often go undiagnosed and can be exacerbated or become fatal when players exert themselves in extreme temperatures.
There were six heart-related football deaths in 2001, according to Mueller’s report.
© 2002, McClatchy/Tribune Information Services