Issue January 28, 2009

WEB EXCLUSIVE: A dangerous game

Max Gilpin was one of four high school football players to die of heat stroke last year

Reporters from across the country flocked to Louisville this week following the indictment of Pleasure Ridge Park High School football coach David Jason Stinson, who is charged with reckless homicide in connection with the heat-related death of a player last summer.

Several witnesses say Stinson and his coaching staff withheld water from the team while making them run sprints on Aug. 20, 2008. During practice, sophomore Max Gilpin collapsed in the 94-degree heat. The 15-year-old’s body temperature reached 107 degrees, and he died three days later from septic shock and multiple organ failure.

Although it appears this is the first time a coach has been criminally charged as a result of a player dying of heat stroke, it is hardly the first time such a tragedy has occurred on the football field.

In 2008, four high school football players and two college players died as a result of overheating during practice, according to Frederick Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

“It’s so stupid because there is scientific evidence that shows you will perform better if you have rest and water breaks,” says Mueller, adding that heat stroke is easily prevented. “They need to let kids know that it’s OK for them to say they aren’t feeling good and that they need to take a break.”

Every year, Mueller compiles a comprehensive list of serious sports-related injuries and fatalities. Since 1995, he says 29 high school football players have died as a result of heat stroke.

“This is something that should not be happening,” Mueller says.

When practicing in the summer months, he suggests slowly acclimating players to the weather, providing ample water that is available at all times, resting in the shade every 30 minutes and having cold ice packs available.

In addition to taking the necessary precautions to ensure such tragedies do not occur, he recommends having an emergency plan in place in case a young athlete does become overheated.

As for the case of Max Gilpin, Mueller says he, like most people across the country, is aware of the situation, but he is reluctant to say too much at this point: “We don’t know if there were water breaks — there are conflicting reports about that. What I do know is that if a kid gets thirsty, he should walk off and get water.”

Read more about the death of Max Gilpin and resulting criminal case in this week’s print edition of LEO or online at leoweekly.com/news.