Falling temperatures cool football preseason heat worries
As the mercury began to fall in early August, local high school football coaches – and their players – began to breathe sighs of relief. The hottest summer in decades was relenting just before it could scorch players returning to preseason practices.
Instead of facing daily high temperatures in the triple digits – which was the case during much of July – most high school football programs have enjoyed temperatures in the 70s and 80s at preseason practices this summer, with the additional benefit of low humidity.
Gary Kornfeld has been the head football coach at Saint Louis University High School for 36 years. His team began practicing this year on August 6, a typical starting date for schools in the area.
“The month before was brutal,” he said. “We were spoiled this year.”
Practice goes on, regardless of whether the heat is brutal or not. Bryan Koch, head football coach at Francis Howell High School, has had to become creative during particularly hot summers. Two years ago, Koch held practices at 4 a.m.
“We explained to [the players], ‘Hey, we have to get our practices in, and this is our only option,’” he said.
Because this year “hasn’t been rough at all yet,” Koch said his team currently practices at more reasonable hours. But the lengths he and other coaches go to in order to avoid high heat show how seriously they now consider the problem.
The difference in the heat index, which is calculated using the temperature and the humidity, is crucial for football players, who regularly go through two- or three-hour-long preseason practices wearing 25 to 30 pounds in pads. Missouri allows teams 25 days of contact practices during the summer.
In recent years, the temperature has increasingly been a matter of life and death. Last summer, six high school players, all between 14 and 16 years old, died nationally during practice from heat stroke, which occurs when the body can’t get rid of excess heat fast enough.
Last year’s number was particularly high, but the problem seems to be growing.
Researchers at the University of Georgia found earlier this year that the number of annual heat-related deaths in high school and college football tripled from 1994 to 2009. Forty high school football players have died from heat stroke in the past 17 years, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
There have been deaths in the NFL and in college football, too, but high school athletes, who are not as well-conditioned and have less access to expensive facilities and coaching staff, are hit hardest.
Almost all the high school deaths have occurred in such states as Arkansas, Georgia, Florida and Texas. So far, Missouri hasn’t had any high school athlete deaths directly related to the heat, according to Jason West, communications director at the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA).
But coaches and doctors who work in sports medicine say the attention to deaths in the South has transformed football practices across the country.
“Anyone who’s going to be a coach … [or] a trainer at a high school in Missouri knows” the danger of heat, said Rick Wright, a surgeon at Washington University who works with two local high school football teams as well as the St. Louis Rams. “You don’t have to convince people about paying attention to it anymore.”
“It’s a scary thing because every kid is different … We don’t know what the kids have been doing all summer, we don’t know how the heat will affect them,” Koch said. “When all of a sudden a kid drops, it’s a real scary moment because you don’t know what the kid is going through.”
Besides scheduling practices early in the morning or late in the evening, which is routine, coaches now promote a culture at practice that is very different from the football practices they went through as players.
“When I played high school football, we got one or two water breaks a practice,” said Koch, who is 30 years old. He said some of his assistant coaches, who are older, had it even tougher.
“They played back in the day when ‘water made you weak,’” Koch said.
It’s an attitude that recalls Coach Boone from the movie “Remember the Titans.” In a memorable scene, Boone berates a player who asks for a water break.
“You need a water break?” he asks. “Water is for cowards. Water makes you weak. Water is for washing blood off that uniform, and you don’t get no blood on my uniform. Boy you must be outside of your mind!”
Today’s players get at least 10 water breaks per practice, or one about every 10 or 15 minutes, according to Belleville West High School head football coach Cameron Pettus. He says players are also encouraged to sit out if they need to.
Across the country, seven states – though not Missouri or Illinois – have passed policies regulating when teams have to modify practice or go indoors.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association publishes guidelines for teams to follow, but the choice to follow them is up to each district, at least for now.
West, of MSHSAA, said most districts follow the guidelines voluntarily, but the association has been considering turning the guidelines into requirements “for a quite a while now.”
Koch said he modifies practice – by taking off pads, for example – if the heat index passes 95, and moves indoors or cancels practice if it passes 105. A heat stroke can be critical if the body’s temperature nears 106 degrees.
“Once the heat index says you can’t go out, you can’t go out,” Kornfeld said. “[Practicing inside], the only thing you’re giving up is punting.”
All three coaches interviewed said they hadn’t had any serious heat-related issues with their own teams. But they said the benefits of taking precautions far outweigh the costs.
“I think people who used to try to take chances on the heat know that you can’t take a chance.” Kornfeld said. “You don’t have to. You don’t.”