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KWAME HOLMAN: A crowd of fans offered support to a mournful Minnesota Vikings football team returning to the practice field today, the day after their teammate Korey Stringer died from heat stroke. On Monday, the 27-year-old offensive tackle left practice early because of heat exhaustion. The 335-pound pro-bowler trained for two-and-half hours on Tuesday, but then collapsed in the 90-plus-degree heat. Stringer was rushed to a hospital, where his body temperature was recorded at 108 degrees. Despite attempts to cool and resuscitate him, the football star died of major organ failure early yesterday morning. Stringer’s teammates spoke at news conference yesterday.
CHRIS CARTER: We never thought that he would die. We knew it was critical. We knew the facts. We knew what his body was saying, but we all had faith that this was something he was going to walk out of. But that wasn’t the case here.
RANDY MOSS: I don’t even know where to start. It’s like he was here today, gone tomorrow.
KWAME HOLMAN: Stringer’s death came six days after a University of Florida freshman, Eraste Autin, died, also of heat stroke. He was the 18th high school or college player to have died of heat-related causes since 1995, according to figures from the University of North Carolina. Stringer was the first pro player. The deaths have raised questions about how teams train and play in sweltering summer heat. The National Football League has ordered all 31 teams to review how coaches and trainers handle practices on hot and humid days. Today at a news conference, Minnesota Vikings Coach Dennis Green responded this way to questions about the heat and whether the team could have prevented Stringer’s death.
DENNIS GREEN: We know how to run a training camp. We’ll continue to run the training camp. We’ve got a lot of experience out here. I hope our team doesn’t feel guilt. I think people can talk a lot about guilt but, you know, tragedies are something that are not explainable. And I don’t think this is explainable.
KWAME HOLMAN: A funeral for Korey Stringer is scheduled for Friday in Minnesota. Another service will be held in his hometown of Warren, Ohio over the weekend.
JIM LEHRER: And on to Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: For more, we turn to Bob Golic, a 14-year veteran of the National Football League– he retired in 1992– and Dr. Art Kellermann, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Dr. Kellermann, what happens when someone gets heat stroke? What happens to the body?
DR. ART KELLERMANN: The major factor that affects heat stroke is the build-up of heat in the body and its effect on the brain. The brain is a phenomenally complex organ but it can only function within narrow ranges of temperature. Too cool or too hot, the brain doesn’t work right. One of the first symptoms of heat stroke is the individual doesn’t think clearly, may have trouble focusing or dealing with the people around them. They may, in fact, be the last to know that they’re getting in trouble. As the body temperature continues to rise, major organs begin to shut down including the liver, blood-clotting system and the kidneys and you can have a catastrophic situation on your hands very, very quickly, particularly in the case of healthy young people working in extremely hot situations or frail elderly caught in tight confined places.
TERENCE SMITH: When you say it can happen very quickly. How quickly? In other words, how fast does it become a serious problem?
DR. ART KELLERMANN: Well, there are two major kinds of heat stroke. Classic heat stroke, which accounts for the majority of deaths, affects primarily the frail elderly or children in confined spaces. Exertional heat stroke, which was the condition that affected Mr. Stringer, can come on in just a matter of a few hours and typically occurs under high environmental conditions, heat and humidity, heavy exertion, whether it’s a roofer or a worker or an athlete, and often wearing tight, confining clothing. Maybe the work clothes or in this case a football uniform and very importantly a football helmet.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Golic, I assumed you’ve practiced in hot conditions.
BOB GOLIC: Many times.
TERENCE SMITH: Does this sound familiar to you?
BOB GOLIC: So familiar it’s from day one, I mean I played 14 years in the National Football League, but this went on back through high school and Little League. As a matter of fact, in all those years I’d like to say they’ve come a long way. I mean, I think a lot of people from my era remember in the old days the coach used to say, well, you don’t drink water because it’s not good for you when you’re working so hard. It will give you stomach cramps. Well, we all know that that’s not the case anymore. Every year we came back to training camps and we knew that the heat and the humidity was there. The teams knew that the heat and the humidity was a problem; the players knew it, the trainers knew it. We saw every day at our practices, we saw the trainer go out. And he had some device. I don’t recall the name of it. But he would spin it around. I would measure the temperature of the air. That evidently somehow he would add that to the humidity in the air and they would come up with a heat index and give us an indication of whether it was actually safe to go out and work that day or not. Of course, very seldom did they ever say, hey, practice is called. It just seemed like it was, you know, they would say, hey, it’s hot but go and work it. We just accepted it.
TERENCE SMITH: If a player like Korey Stringer was not feeling well, why wouldn’t he sit down or take it easy or step away from the practice field?
BOB GOLIC: A couple of reasons. First off none of us feel very well. When it’s 95 degrees and 90% humidity, you don’t feel well from the time you start sweating on the field and guys are hitting you all day long. I mean, plus you don’t… I mean, it could be the fact that you’ve been in camp for two weeks now. Maybe you had too much for breakfast. Maybe you drank too much and your stomach is upset. You don’t really know. Plus, you’ve done it for so long, you have got to understand and especially when guys get to this level, to the pro level and they’ve played this long, there’s a sense of invincibility about them. Most of these guys feel they can walk into a bar and some guy could pull out a gun, they’d shoot them and they would walk away – I mean, get the bullet taken out and that would be it. They just feel like nothing can happen to them. On the field it’s the same way. Even if he felt like things were starting to get bad, you know, there have been many times where I felt like, man, I’m going to pass out. And I would stand up and I would get ready for the next play and say, listen, there’s a young punk kid trying to take my job. I’m going to get up there and work hard to keep my job and to be a part of this football team.
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Kellermann, was this or might this situation have been aggravated by Korey Stringer’s weight and his size?
DR. ART KELLERMANN: I think that that was a factor, but I think it was much less of a factor than the combination of the heat and the humidity, the tight-fitting clothing of a football uniform and a helmet that really blocks the radiation of heat from the head and the heavy exertion that a professional athlete is going to put out on the practice field as well as on the game field. Weight is a factor but this can kill a running back or a wide receiver in practices as easily as it can kill a lineman.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Golic, what should the NFL do to avoid this sort of thing in the future? We heard earlier that there’s a review underway.
BOB GOLIC: Certainly there will be a knee jerk reaction of people jumping out and saying things need to be done and they need to be done quickly. But I think that the League has done quite a bit over the years. The training… The trainers, the medical staffs have become much better over the years than they were back in the old days. Basically every injury was put ice on it and you’ll be okay. It’s gotten very sophisticated now. I still think there’s a problem; I still think that there’s a conflict of interest. A good friend of mine who was a physician with one of the pro teams brought up the point in a book about… talking about the conflict of interest between being a doctor and having the Hippocratic Oath and being responsible for your patient who essentially is that player, how he’s feeling, is he good enough to go on or does he have to come off the field and your connection to the football team, being paid by the football team to keep these guys healthy to go out and play. I mean there is a conflict there. I guess as a doctor, you’ve got to ask yourself, what do you do? Are you getting these guys ready for the team to throw them out on the field and play, or are you really concerned more about the health of the player?
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Kellermann, what would you say they could do? What changes could be put in place to prevent this from happening again?
DR. ART KELLERMANN: I think, as my colleague was describing, there are a number of measures in place but clearly when the heat index is high, you move practice to as early in the morning as you can get the guys out of bed when that’s less of a factor. You take frequent breaks. You encourage people to drink a lot of cool fluids, and you repeatedly ask your players how are you doing? I understand there may be some doctors out there that have to worry about the team’s bottom line but nothing matters more than protecting our patients, protecting our players, protecting the people we work with. That’s what being a doctor is all about.
BOB GOLIC: And guys, one additional thing to that is they have over the last, I’d say, ten years started to make changes in the schedules. It used to be that training camps were two a days. You practiced twice a day, full pads, full contact, two-and-a-half hours each session and you just went at it. That was just brutal. But as time went on, I think owners and coaches realized that this isn’t the old days where players had to have jobs in the off seasons to maintain their standard of living and then come and get into shape in training camp. Now guys train the whole season long so they’re in shape by the time training camp comes along. So when training camp is there instead of doing two a day, they’ll do two practices a day, but they’ll do a hard, full contact practice, say, in the morning for two-and-a-half hours, break, have lunch, have a little rest and meetings and then in the afternoon kind of do, go out in shoulder pads and helmets do a much more lighter, more mental type of practice.
TERENCE SMITH: Very briefly at the end, Dr. Kellermann, what can ordinary people learn from this about exercising themselves in very hot conditions?
DR. ART KELLERMANN: Well, I any if there are high school players watching this, college players or average weekend warriors, the key is when it’s hot you’ve got to pace yourself. You’ve got to listen to your body. You’ve got to look out for your friends. If they’re not looking good, you have got to make them stop. And if they tell you you’re not looking good, you have got to listen to them because heat kills. It can kill superbly conditioned professional athletes. It can kill a jogger that thinks he’s going to go out in 95-degree weather in a sauna suit and lose a few pounds. This is not something to mess with.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.