Scorching summer in Crossroads has football coaches, administrators on watch

Aug. 8, 2011 at 3:08 a.m.

Ten years after football was rocked by three high-profile deaths in a 10-day period from heat-related complications, the Crossroads has sustained seemingly inhumane heat this summer.

That the high temperature in Victoria was 103 degrees on the first available day of practice underscored the precaution coaches and administrators are taking to ensure the deaths of people like Memorial freshman Matt Thomas are not in vain.

"We live in a society that believes if 'It's gonna happen it ain't gonna happen to me,'" said Jerry Campbell, the first-year football coach at Memorial when Thomas collapsed and eventually died Aug. 12, 2003.

"I will never forget the day it happened to us in Victoria for Matt," he added. "I think today we are more conscious of it because its more publicized. I don't remember back in the day, I don't remember anyone dying on the field."

In September 2003, the Advocate reported Thomas died of cardiac arrhythmia related to mild dehydration. Elizabeth Peacock, the deputy medical examiner, wrote in her autopsy report "there is insufficient investigation evidence to employ heat related injury, although, I cannot rule it out."

According to the National Weather Service an extended drought and relative lack of cloud cover have produced one of the warmest summer's in the eight years since a similar heat-related tragedy visited Victoria.

Back in 2001, University of Florida freshman Eraste Autin died July 25. Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died Aug. 1 and Northwestern safety Rashidi Wheeler died 48 hours after Stringer.

Monday, the Vikings remembered Stringer with a moment of silence as well as painting his No. 77 on a practice field at their Mankato, Minn. practice facility.

Campbell, now a health education teacher and offensive coordinator at Clovis West High School in California, has lost touch with Thomas' family. It does not stop him from thinking about Matt daily.

"I go to practice, my telephone never leaves my side," Campbell said. "There is so much that is involved that coaches need to think about. The trainers, how they are going to give water, where is it going to be located, practice schedules.

"It should be shown on the schedules when those breaks are going to take place and are we going to follow up on those breaks. We just have to be more conscious."

Since Thomas' death the Victoria Independent School District has issued a directive to prevent heat-related illness.

If the heat index is above 105 degrees no practice or physical education practices can be held outdoors. However, the policy specifically exempts "the student who is preconditioned and acclimatized to the heat conditions."

At 96.4 degrees, June's average high temperature was more than six degrees above normal. Meanwhile, July's 99.4 average was 7.4 degrees hotter than the same period last year.

Information compiled by National Weather Service forecaster Zach Finch found this summer (June and July) is the second hottest on record. Finch said the temperature has been higher than normal this year, but the heat index, which is a combination of temperature and relative humidity, has been on par with previous years.

On its website, the University Interscholastic League stated "there are no excuses for heatstroke deaths if the proper precautions are taken."

Having coaches know the physical condition of their athletes, weigh athletes before and after practice and gradually acclimating their teams to the heat over a seven to 10 day period were among the UIL suggestions, which were culled from the 1991 book published by the American Academy of Pediatrics "Sports Medicine: Health Care for Young Athletes"

"Volleyball practice has begun and even though its indoors, certainly not all gyms are air conditioned.," UIL Athletic Director Mark Cousins said. "It's something where a number of our schools and a number of our students are outside. All we're trying to do is provide our coaches and sponsors with enough information so they can put their practices in a safe and efficient manner."

For the past three years part of the UIL compliance program for coaches has included information on heat illness. Such information was provided for numerous years before it became part of the criteria for coaching in Texas, Cousins said.

Bay City football coach Robert Blackmon has been around the sport for more than 25 years in a career that has taken him from Van Vleck High School to Baylor to a nine year career in the NFL. Blackmon said if an athlete puts in the work in the offseason, August's practices are generally not as physically demanding. The comment indirectly cited what the VISD meant by a preconditioned athlete.

Bay City coaches make a point to tell their athletes it is critical they not consume electrolytes after practice, but eat properly after practice because their bodies to refuel and rejuvenate.

Blackmon and Cousins have a point, when they say the Texas summer is always hot. Along with physically preparing for searing temperatures both men said students should prepare for football from a mental and dietary perspective.

"It's up to us as coaches to let that kid know 'I understand you may be fine, let me give Lil' Joe the next chance,'" Blackmon said. "Even though someone is on the verge of getting tired you have to err on the side of caution. I tell kids, 'You aren't going to make the team, I know what you can do. I know if you can play when you are at full speed.' If I am observing a kid who is slower than normal, incoherent and not answering questions correctly we send him to the sidelines, then send him inside."



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