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2 tragedies serve as warning for athletes

Coaches, doctors and others look to do more to prevent young people from falling victim to high temperatures.

Published July 25, 2006


TAMPA - With the back-to-back deaths of two young football players last week, coaches, government officials and doctors are calling for significant changes, including mandatory physicals, to prevent future tragedies.

"We're not supposed to be burying 11- and 12-year-olds," said John Brill, spokesman for Hillsborough County's recreation department.

In addition, they will be looking for ways to monitor more closely young players on sports fields and better educate team officials about ways to keep players healthy and safe.

Children are more vulnerable than adults to heat illness and need special precautions, said several doctors who study heat injuries.

Yet children and the coaches who work with them are generally less aware of the risks, said scientists with the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Every year we have deaths and we have a number of collapses," said the organization's Michael F. Bergeron, an assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia.

One of the two deaths in Hillsborough last week, of 11-year-old Jamell Johnson, was attributed to heat stroke by the Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office. The cause of death a few days earlier for 12-year-old Bobby Stephens Jr. remains undetermined.

In Pasco County on Monday, two Hudson High School students were taken to the hospital after showing symptoms of heat exhaustion during football conditioning drills. Three other players had symptoms but didn't have to be hospitalized.

The Tampa deaths are "on all the coaches' minds," said head football coach Mark Nash.

They were on the minds of sports officials too, who contemplated the need for mandatory physical exams before children join youth leagues, something that often isn't required now.

Brill said Hillsborough recreation officials are considering mandatory physicals for participants in its youth leagues. The county requires water breaks for players every 20 minutes and requires one coach on each team to be trained in CPR, but it doesn't require physicals.

"I'm sure we'll talk about it and decide whether we mandate (physicals) or let the leagues do it individually," Brill said, adding that enforcing such a rule could be a challenge.

The Tampa Bay Youth Football League, in which both boys played, will require physicals next year, said director Scott Levinson.

Anita King, 32, was surprised to find out that the league her 12-year-old son, J'Carrien, plays for didn't already require physicals. Jamell was J'Carrien's teammate on the Nuccio Jaguars.

"They shouldn't let them on the field unless they have one," she said.

Mandatory physicals also could flag some health problems and spot children who are at higher risk for heat illness because of medicines they're taking, several doctors said.

The American College of Sports Medicine wrote new guidelines last fall for preventing heat illness in young football players because the need for better guidance is "critical," said Bergeron, co-chairman of the guidelines panel.

Too many coaches "were often working them too long, too hard, and getting them into full uniform too early," Bergeron said.

The sports medicine group found 21 American football players, high school and younger, who died from heat stroke from 1995 to 2001. Nobody tracks how many young athletes are hospitalized for heat stroke or heat exhaustion, but Bergeron and others said the number is much higher.

"There are a lot of people at risk," said Dr. Doug McKeag, the panel's other co-chairman. "Most will survive. They get the headaches, the disorientation, the nausea, the vomiting."

Bobby, who lived in Riverview, died during the first day of practice with the Progress Village Panthers on July 17.

Jamell, an aspiring pro football player who loved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was to attend Greco Middle School this fall, died Friday after a week in the hospital, where he was taken from the practice field.

He had played football for years and had a physical the week before his collapse, said his mother, Connie Johnson.

"It's just unbelievable it happened," she said.

Johnson said she would be talking to coaches about providing some kind of electrolyte replacement for the children on the field.

"I believe water is not enough," she said.

Levinson said these were the first two deaths in the league's 38-year history. The league is considering whether it should heed Johnson's concerns about adding something like Gatorade to the field.

"Right now, we're asking ourselves what else can we do?" he said. "We're looking for answers."

Besides offering water breaks every 20 minutes, "We're stressing to parents to hydrate these kids when they get home at night and all the next day," Levinson said.

That's advice that many young people don't get, doctors said. Young athletes often come to practice dehydrated and, even if they drink enough water during practice, don't drink enough later, Bergeron said.

Younger players also get more dehydrated than adults before they feel thirsty, said Dr. Eric Coris, director of the University of South Florida Division of Sports Medicine.

During practice, middle-school football players aren't able to get rid of body heat as easily as older athletes, doctors said. Their sweat glands aren't as developed. They have less skin to help cool down.

The sports panel's report stresses the need to ease into practice to give players a chance to adjust to working out in the heat.

"When we see deaths, it's people who are just starting a program," McKeag said.

Many young athletes face a dangerous combination, doctors said. Sports have become more competitive at younger ages. But today's teens are less used to exercising in the heat.

"There's the shock of getting out there to run around, when they're used to sitting around playing video games in the air conditioning," said St. Petersburg pediatrician Steve Karges.

The 2,500-player Tampa Bay Youth Football League contracts with Hillsborough County, which hires a paramedic at each game as well as requiring one coach on each team to be trained in CPR.

Charles Roberts, athletic director for a neighboring league, Tampa's Unity Youth Football Conference, said that isn't enough. He trains all his coaches in CPR.

"You just can't have one designated person," Roberts said. "All of the coaches need to know first aid."

Roberts doesn't allow a football player on the field who hasn't passed a doctor's physical.

Roberts said that the deaths of Bobby and Jamell hit home especially hard for him, because he was the first coach of the Progress Village Panthers in 1970.

To prevent such tragedies on his teams, Roberts has developed a safety technique he calls the "four corners drill."

Coaches are placed at each corner of the field to monitor children for signs of stress. He wants coaches to look into players' eyes as they run.

During Jaguars practice Monday, the first since Jamell's death, Levinson reminded the boys to put their health first.

"Remember what happened out here," he said. "Don't ever forget it. We're one big family, and we're all going to stay that way."

[Last modified July 31, 2006, 05:36:59]

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