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The end came like a flash from a camera in Mankato, Minnesota where the Minnesota Vikings had convened for their daily training drills despite the humidity index warnings issued by the National Weather Service.
The camera after the flash displayed the tortured body of a young professional football player, sprawled out on the playing field from the most formidable opponent of all the power of the sun.
He was not tackled or thrown to the ground by another player, he was determined to show his teammates that he was immortal, even after heaving his guts out one day before his death he finished practice and reported to do it again the next day.
That Monday morning, it was obvious that Stringer was struggling, Twice, he was witnessed to have been sick and vomiting. The afternoon practice was much different, about midday through the practice, which head coach Dennis Green had delayed about 75 minutes to avoid some of the midday heat, Stringer walked off the field with one of the trainers.
Again he had vomited, and this time he did not return to the field. The very next day, a local newspaper would run a picture of Stringer hunched over with his mouth wide open.
What was even more interesting to note was the fact that some staff writers for Sporting News Magazine were there that very same day, and on that Monday evening they even talked to various Minnesota coaches, including offensive line coach Mike Tice and his assistant, Dean Dalton. Among some of the topics discussed one of them happened to be about Korey Stringer and his difficulties that day on the field. Little did anyone know what would happen the very next day?
The Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the Vikings reported to training camp in the best possible shape of his career thus far, at 336 pounds, he was 11 pounds lighter than a year ago.
It was also well known that he customarily struggled in the first half of training camp. However every year Stringer entered camp with immense excitement and enthusiasm for a new season to begin.
According to his coaches, Stringer getting sick at practice was not unlike a player getting sick before a big game. It was blamed on nerves as much as anything else. Stringer was even nudged and teased a little bit by his teammates and coaches after the publication of the photo showing him vomiting had hit the newsstands.
Stringer was filled this season with a sense of urgency and a leadership role was starting to beckon him as he was beginning to embrace that role not only for the offensive line but for the entire team as well.
With the Viking free agent losses of Pro Bowl linemen Todd Steusie after last season and Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy the year before, the timing had become ripe for Stringer to take over as the anchor to this unit. Stringer in his mind after the photo publication and the notice of his teammates and coaches about that Monday practice session. Was determined not to seem mortal at all.
Come Tuesday morning, Stringer again experienced extreme discomfort in the blazing heat and humidity as the country experienced a pro-longed heat wave with it’s own sweat and stickiness.
This time, according to sources, he did not summon a trainer. Always a true professional, he was even more compelled to keep right on working as he knew that all the eyes of the team were upon him.
In fact, coaches that were on the field said he had a great morning practice in full pads. He was observed as looking crisp in drills and even kept a good a sense of humor as he was well known for. At the end of practice, Stringer and many of the offensive linemen stayed out on the field and did a little extra conditioning and agility work.
It is reasonable to assume that this is where Stringer’s body finally hit the wall, as he went over to the water cooler, a teammate asked him if he was all right. According to sources, Stringer told his teammate that he might be in a little trouble. The trainers were called and Stringer was escorted to an air-conditioned room in the training complex. The next 14 hours are well documented.
The heatstroke symptoms began to take their toll he was carted off to a nearby hospital as his internal body temperature had cooked itself to a sizzling 108 degrees. The real tragedy was that Stringer felt he had to push himself that he had to prove to his team and to himself that he was better than the forces of nature that beat down upon him.
This is the mindset of the NFL as it comes with a very serious toll on a person both physically and mentally, the spirit of immortal pride runs deep in every organization some even more than others. Many players are very reluctant to listen to what their bodies are telling them due to this aura of discipline and pride that overrides all common sense that something is starting to go very wrong.
Someone has to stand up and say enough is enough, someone has to come forward and recognize that young people that are forced to play on practice fields all over the country and die from heat exhaustion need not to. For football players to look at themselves and consider themselves as supermen and larger than life immortals, it is time to reevaluate yourselves.
It is so senseless for someone to die over these causes; Stringer went out and died for his macho cause. By the time he realized he was in dire straits and sought a trainer, he was literally melting away to his final resting-place. His organs started to fail him, and his spirit had been destroyed as his body collapsed and reminded him for one last time that yes he was mortal.
Before reaching that point of no return, someone anyone should have stepped forward and led him to safety. Oddly offensive line coach Mike Tice said Stringer showed no warning signs. Imagine his body temperature was rising to a level 10 degrees above the human norm. How can it be that anyone could miss such a fatality happening right before his or her eyes?
It is just plain common sense and wrong to have players at any level, pro to pee wee, putting on layers of pads and working out in extreme summer heat and humidity. It seems to be a wicked pattern in process when Stringer died just six days after Eraste Austin, a Florida freshman, died of heat stroke? And only a few hours before Travis Stowers, an Indiana high school player, died of causes that can be related to heat?
The real message needs to be addressed and that is that every organization must review exactly what it is they do on the practice field in these extreme conditions. They must be held accountable for their actions in subjecting players to extremely harsh conditions and general managers need to be informed and or present.
There will always be that coach from the old school that will drive his players to perform at a high level at all times. There is nothing wrong with such a philosophy as long as it does not override common sense in extreme conditions that presented itself like it did on theses days Korey Stringer was literally dying inside.
Stringer was only twenty-seven years old and stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 335 pounds he was known as a grizzly bear on the field and a teddy bear off from it. He was well known as a great husband and a great father, his family is forced to accept the fact that he died for a cause that equaled itself to what his life was.
No one can ever bring him back, his life serves as an awakening to all sports programs, that the need for restraint and empowerment to make sound decisions based on weather forecasts be taken seriously.
Before the 49er’s begun their workout the following day after Stringers death, they gathered on the field for prayer that morning in Stockton. And in Napa, the Oakland Raiders did the same thing.
Even though both teams practiced that day the somber mood was ever present throughout the day, many players took the time to remember what Stringer meant to them and to reflect upon how fragile life really is.
Just for the record though the NFL does have precautions to guard against heat-related illnesses, most teams encouraging players to drink plenty to replenish fluids lost during demanding workouts often which are held in sweltering conditions.
One has to wonder though as to why players are subjected to such adverse and unhealthy situations when weather forecasts predict that humidity is going to be present. I am not saying to do without workouts or not report to practices, but toning down these practices and setting reasonable time frames must be better than what they are now.
Even in college, like the three area schools with NCAA Division I-A football programs; San Jose State, Stanford and California go to great lengths to ensure that athletes are properly hydrated.
Certified athletic trainers and their staffs make sure that athletes take in proper amounts of fluids and are observant for signs of dehydration. The same cannot be said though for area high schools, because many high schools cannot afford a certified trainer.
Thus the risk factor to high school players is much greater. A Mercury News survey conducted just last year found that less than half of the 110 high schools in the Central Coast Section employed full-time trainers.
One has to understand the realm of tight athletic departments and what a school districts school budget is designed to allow financially. Many times school board officials see no need to hire such trainers as they merely take a potential teaching position budget wise.
The atmosphere though still abounds with the fact that players are supermen and are invincible to the hazards of Mother Nature. Unfortunately this type of mentality exists even at the high school level as well.
Former Raiders Coach John Madden, a commentator for Fox, recalls that when he broke in as a player, “We wouldn’t allow water on the field. That was a sign of weakness. I remember as a player sneaking off to grab a hose or sucking water out of a sprinkler head, things like that. Just anything to get it. Then they realized that was a stupid thing to do.”
I am grateful as well as I know that the players are, that 49er trainers and training camp aides make water and sports drinks available to players at all times, Head Coach Steve Mariucci said. Midway through every workout, dozens of colored bottles of Gatorade are tossed on the field and players choose what they want in a break dubbed the Easter Egg hunt.
To say that there are no precautions and no stipulations in place to guard against dehydration, is not reasonable to assume but mistakes are made and bodies at times are pushed to the maximum too often. Trainers as well as coaches must be able to identify the signs and know when to tone down certain routine workouts.
Mike Chaplin, head football trainer at California, uses guidelines set by the National Athletic Trainers Association to help maintain proper hydration. Chaplin weighs players before and after practice to supervise weight loss, which can aid identification of early signs of dehydration. Players also drink eight to 10 ounces of fluids every 15 to 29 minutes during practices. Water is always made available.
Simply knowing when to adjust the training criteria and make the schedule flexible so as according to the weather and the humidity index, would be encouraging. Teams do have some nice safeguards to limit such heat exhaustion from setting in. However the danger is still there for a severe mishap, and that was the case with Korey Stringer.
Oakland Raiders Tight End Andrew Glover, who was with the New Orleans Saints last season, says practicing in Napa is much better than in Thibodaux, La., where the Saints held camp.
“It’s not really that hot here in Napa, and Coach does a great job pf taking care of us,” he said of Jon Gruden. “The first thing I thought about was when I was in New Orleans last year and it was 105, 110 degrees and we were outside in full pads at 2 pm, the hottest part of the day. It just made me realize it easily could have happened to us, to me.”
This is just another pure indication that teams, do not all run consistently the same, and some coaches do force their players to grind it out in the scorching heat. And push their agenda at all costs regardless sometimes of the hazards.
Sometimes, players will push themselves even harder because they are fighting to prove themselves and land a roster position on the team. Listening to trainers and coaches preach about proper hydration and looking for the signs is sometimes the last thing a young athlete takes into serious consideration.
Structuring proper practice routines is also very crucial to safeguarding players overall health. With temperatures reaching the high 90’s on most days in Napa, the Raiders conduct heavy practices and workouts in the morning, finishing by 11:30. Afternoon practice starts at 2:45, with players in shorts.
The 49er’s also schedule contact work in the morning and practice in shorts in the afternoon. The schedule can be shortened or changed if weather conditions dictate, as they have been very flexible overall.
“They make sure guys are hydrated,” 49er’s left tackle Derrick Deese said after Wednesday’s morning practice at University of the Pacific. “We’ve got trainers carrying around cups of water and almost forcing us to take it.”
“Obviously we monitor most everything they do, including what they eat and put into their bodies. We have a menu that’s beneficial for the heat;” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said. “We constantly have water and Gatorade in the meeting rooms and practice fields. Every team has that; I’m sure the Vikings take every precaution just as we do.”
The investment you make in your players well being has to come around and reward you twice over, the healthiness of the team should be paramount on the minds of both the front office and the coaching staff. In order to reap dedication and improve team morale the compassion for players practicing in such brutal conditions has to be immediate.
John Madden said ob KCBS radio that when he was the coach of the Raiders in the 1970’s, his players wouldn’t be permitted water until after practice, which he said was commonplace around the league. Not anymore.
“The days of sucking up and getting through practice and not needing water for three hours is so absurd and so old school,” Mariucci said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. If it does, I’m not aware of it. If that still exists, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
The regimens on the field are really taken seriously by all the players, especially first year rookies that are trying to make a name for themselves, reminders to keep their bodies properly hydrated are everywhere. Derrick Deese pointed out that a lot of times in camp, players are preparing for real game situations, such as going on a 15-play drive without a chance to get water.
“Everybody’s body is different,” Deese said. “You can’t pass a law stating you must have two drinks every hour.” Mariucci has noted that linemen during a typical practice lose between 8 and 12 pounds, most of that being water.
49er defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, a nine-year veteran, said he prepares for that weight loss by filling himself up with water before workouts. “This is going to open some coach’s eyes (around the league),” Stubblefield said of Stringer’s death. “Maybe they’ll realize we shouldn’t practice 3.5 hours; that maybe since it’s 110 degrees, they should not push players as much as they have been.”
His wife, Keici, and their three-year-old son, Kodie, survive Korey Stringer, a 1995 first-round pick out of Ohio State. The reality of this predicament is serious; the tragedy of the fact his son will have to grow up and learn about what his father was like and how he passed away will forever be indented in his mind.
“It was a shock to wake up early in the morning and hear about something like that,” said Ahmed Plummer, a cornerback who played at Ohio State a few years after the offensive lineman completed his eligibility. “At Ohio State, it’s kind of like a fraternity. You hear something like that, of one of your brothers going down, and that’s really tragic.” “He’s a big-time player. If it can happen to Korey Stringer, it can happen to anybody.”
The entire NFL and sports industry took a tremendous loss with his death, and the investigation into that death will be ongoing, it has to shake the foundation right down to it’s roots when such a tragedy takes place and so many lives are effected.
“All of us in the NFL family are stunned and saddened by the death of Korey Stringer,” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement on Wednesday. “He was a popular and well-respected team leader; He had a burning desire to be the best and was a major factor in the Viking’s success since 1995.”
Oakland Raiders back-up quarterback Bobby Hoying, a teammate of Stringer’s at Ohio State for three years, said he was in a state of shock after getting an early-morning call from his wife.
“Every year you come to camp, go through the heat, and you never really think somebody could die out here,” Hoying said. “He was just a great guy, one of those guys who were always joking around in the locker room. It’s just amazing that could happen with all the medical attention there, It’s a tragic loss.”
“All I can think about is his kid,” said Raiders tight end Andrew Glover, who played with Stringer in Minnesota from 1997-99. “(His father) is not coming home.”
The underlying facts speak for themselves. Practices in extreme heat must be curtailed or scaled back, it is up to the individual team to make sure that this is followed and that players are monitored closely in such adverse conditions. Stringers death is a solid testament to this and we should all stand up and take notice.
We lost a great human being, a professional football player, and a mentor to others, a good husband and a good father. Let us not turn our heads but bow them and pray for his family.
Head Coach Steve Mariucci gave his team a passing grade in it’s first pre-season opener against the San Diego Chargers, even after they lost in the final 39 seconds of that game 25-24 in Qualcomm Stadium.
The San Diego Chargers looked crisp and sharp under the direction of acquired free agent quarterback Doug Flutie, another former Canadian Football star, The 49er’s yielded a late fourth quarter drive by the Chargers for a touchdown and a two-point conversion that sealed the victory.
“I thought we were going to win it,” Mariucci said during a conference call on Sunday. “It didn’t work out that way. We didn’t win the game, but we played well enough to win it. Certainly, we were a lot better than our opener last year.”
There were some very interesting developments that transpired during this game, to give the 49er’s renewed hope that they have a chance at being really competitive this season against a division of top guns like New Orleans and St. Louis.
The return of running back Garrison Hearst, who played his very first game since suffering an ankle injury in a January 1999 divisional playoff game in Atlanta. Hearst played the entire first quarter and had nine yards on seven carries. He also had one reception for 15 yards after breaking a tackle. This gives me great hope that Hearst can start to shake the rust and be the force that he was in 1998.
The play of quarterbacks Jeff Garcia. Garcia looked sharp in the one quarter of action that he saw hitting 3-of-7 passes for 41 yards, including a 16-yard scoring strike to rookie Cedrick Wilson. He showed great awareness, scrambling three times for 40 yards. He looked like vintage Jeff Garcia, compelling me to believe he will be as good if not better than last season.
“I’m perfectly fine with that,” Mariucci said. “I thought he made good decisions when to get out of the pocket. You hope the quarterback makes first downs with his feet. That’s nothing you can plan on. It adds another dimension to your attack.”
Then there were the professional debuts of defensive end Andre Carter, there first round pick from California, and linebacker Jamie Winborn. Mariucci admitted that both players seemed overwhelmed early in the game. But the two of them settled in nicely and performed well as they adjusted to the faster, more physical game that is the NFL.
Andre Carter looked at as a formidable force by the Chargers; saw double-teams right from the get go. He played a total of 17 snaps. Mariucci acknowledged that this type of play could be expected, and that it was good for Carter to experience it in preparing for the regular season opener against Atlanta on September 9th.
“I think, as he becomes a pass-rushing threat in this league, he’s going to see that,” Mariucci said. “He’s going to see teams sliding to him, putting a tight end on him. That’s good, because then that singles up some guys on the inside.”
Linebacker Jamie Winborn, who was in the game for 31 snaps, struggled a bit but Mariucci was also pleased with his development. “Winborn played a lot. Even talking to Winborn on the airplane coming back home, he said, 'At first things were new to me. After I goy playing a little bit, I got accustomed to the speed of the game.’ He showed athleticism. He showed good aggressiveness. He did some rookie things. He’s going to continue to play a lot and continue to get better and better.”
The greatest knock on the 49er’s in the opener was the sloppy tackling and general lack of sharpness demonstrated by the defensive unit early in the game, which by the way was without three starters. Mariucci signaled that he was not at all alarmed about it, due to the fact that the 49er’s do not hit and tackle in practice. This is where they will see that and become better at it.
“The things that aren’t as good right now, are the things that we don’t practice as much in training camp,” Mariucci said. “That’s something we’ll get better as the pre-season goes on. Those are the things you get better at because you do them more often.”
“We made some mistakes,” Mariucci said, in defense of his defense. “We need to tackle better. We over-pursued a little bit. We got fooled on a reverse. The defense could have been a lot better in a lot of different areas. And there’s no doubt in my mind that we will be better.”
There was one more player that stood out in the 49er’s first pre-season game and a surprise to me, as I have been as equally frustrated as a lot of fans when mentioning defensive tackle Reggie McGrew. McGrew knows that he has lost considerable ground and has been in the doghouse after missing some time at mini-camps.
However he has made some commitments and seems to be keeping his end of the deal so far, he has almost made an attempt to live up to the player the 49er’s had thought they had drafted back in 1999.
The third-year defensive tackle played his best game so far in a 49er uniform; he played 29 snaps, and was credited with two tackles and even put some pressure on the quarterback in one play.
“Reggie did a nice job,” Mariucci said. “He played 29 snaps, very solid. He did what we asked him to do. It was probably his best performance so far. He’s living up to what we hope and expect of him. It was encouraging to see Reggie McGrew play like he did.”
The quarterback picture behind Jeff Garcia seems to be getting heated, as both Rick Mirer and second-year quarterback Tim Rattay from Louisiana Tech, are locked in a heated battle for the No. 2 position.
Tim seemed a little bit more comfortable in running the 49er offense than did Rick Mirer, a nine-year veteran. Rattay completed nine of 14 passes for 141 yards; Mirer completed 10 passes for 50 yards.
“Tim has had a real good off-season working with us in Santa Clara. He’s been in better shape. He’s quicker with the offense. He’s always had the instinctive part of the game. So he’s making improvements and he’s competing,” Mariucci said of Rattay.
Overall I was very impressed myself with the way the 49er’s played despite their loss in the opener, I do believe it is still the defense that needs to have the showing for us to come through this season. We have made some outstanding decisions in correcting this and I believe that the defense will grow and become stronger as the season wears on.
I share the same optimism as Mariucci, and I have every reason to believe that we will compete and save face when we play some of the better teams this season. We have to feel the sense of improvement that this team has endured the effort and talent can be harnessed and developed into victory.