Craig LeMoult for NPR
Doctoral student Brett Comstock wears a football uniform as he walks on a treadmill at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut.
Doctoral student Brett Comstock wears a football uniform as he walks on a treadmill at the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. Craig LeMoult for NPR
As extremely hot temperatures continue to hit much of the country, high school football teams are busy getting ready for the fall season.
Last year, five high school football players died of heat stroke. Across the country, experts are trying to prevent those kinds of tragedies.
At the University of Connecticut's Korey Stringer Institute, researchers study the effects of extreme heat on athletes.
A recent experiment at the institute — named after an NFL lineman who died in 2001 of heat stroke — had doctoral fellow Dave Hooper running on a treadmill in a 96-degree room. Hooper was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
"Right now I'm taking his internal body temperature, and more specifically his rectal temperature. And he's at 100.29 degrees right now," says doctoral fellow Evan Johnson, who is running the experiment.
After a half-hour, another doctoral student, Brett Comstock, gets on the treadmill wearing a full football uniform. As he walks, the sweat is pouring off of him because the heavy uniform doesn't allow it to evaporate.
"Now we're going to see how his heart rate changes over the course of exercise, how his body temperature rises over the course of exercise, and then compare that to somebody just wearing shorts and a T-shirt," Johnson says.
That comparison shows Comstock, in the football uniform, increased his body temperature a half of a degree more than Hooper, in the T-shirt. Johnson says that over the course of a three-hour football practice, that's significant.
"That's the difference between heat stroke and walking around fine," Johnson says.
Kendrick Fincher's body temperature was 108 degrees when he died in Arkansas in August 1995. The 13-year-old's mom, Rhonda Fincher, says that when Kendrick got home from football practice, he was staggering and slurring his words. Kendrick was taken to the hospital.
"I remember them bringing him in and just thinking [about] how when I left him, he was strong and fine. And it was very traumatic to think a healthy 13-year-old child could go to football practice, and the next time you see him you don't know if he's going to live or die," Fincher says.
After her son's death, Fincher started the Kendrick Fincher Hydration Foundation to educate schools, teams, players and parents about how to prevent heat illness.
"This is important, very important," Fincher says.
In the locker room at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., Coach Marce Petroccio talks to his team before the first practice of the year.
"If for any reason whatsoever you don't feel well, you're to let a position coach or myself know immediately. OK, plenty of fluids, everybody understand that?" Petroccio says.
Out on the field, the players run drills in shorts, T-shirts and helmets — no pads. The state's school athletic conference has signed on to a set of guidelines to help players acclimate to heat. They were designed in 2009 by a task force made up of sports medicine experts, including people from the National Athletic Trainers Association. Douglas Casa is the head of the Korey Stringer Institute.
"It's just simply having a program in place that you're gradually increasing the stresses during football practices, and we know it really can protect these athletes," Casa says.
The guidelines require a certain number of days at the beginning of the practice season without full uniforms. They limit the number of two-a-day practices that teams can have. They also recommend having an athletic trainer on site — something fewer than half of high schools do. Casa says that at the college level and in the NFL, guidelines have been adopted to protect the athletes from heat.
"But at the high school level it's a very different challenge, because you have to get all 50 states individually to approve safety guidelines," Casa says.
Right now, just nine states have fully adopted the task force guidelines. A national federation of state sports programs does make "recommendations" that a lot of states use. But those recommendations are far less specific about what coaches can and can't do in practice than the task force guidelines. Casa says if parents are worried that schools and coaches aren't doing enough to protect young athletes, it's up to them to raise the issue.