Updated: Friday, 31 Jul 2009, 5:53 PM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 29 Jul 2009, 11:41 PM EDT
CENTRAL INDIANA (WISH) - Starting August 3, high school football teams all over Indiana start a yearly tradition. It’s the tradition of two-a-day football practices. Those practices can come with danger when the temperature soars.
29 high school football players have died of heat stroke between 1995 and 2008 across the country. One of those deaths happened here in Indiana. New guidelines released this summer aim to prevent these heat-related deaths, but our I-Team 8 investigation found that those guidelines won't be enforced by the IHSAA this season.
Travis Stowers was just 17 when he collapsed during football practice in July of 2001 at Clinton Central High School. Travis' brother Jared was there that day.
"It was Jared's second day ever to get to go to football with his big brother," said Sherry Stowers, Travis’ mother.
In the Stowers family, football was tradition. Travis and his two brothers were fourth generation.
The day Travis collapsed on the Clinton Central football field it was 91 degrees with a heat index of 105. According to court documents, the coaches had seen Travis vomit after the morning practice. They agreed to watch Travis and another player for future signs of heat stroke. Within hours, Travis collapsed and later died.
“He told the coach ‘I just don't feel right’,” said Sherry Stowers.
Travis collapsed while on his way to get water. He later died.
After Travis died, the family learned other players also had dry heaves that day which is possibly a sign of heat stroke setting in.
We asked the Stowers what the coaches did about those signs of heat-related illnesses. "Not enough," according to Mrs. Stowers. Alan Stowers, Travis dad added, "Kept practicing."
The family sued claiming the two a day practice was too long, violated IHSAA rules and was too rigid. After a jury found in favor of the school, the court of appeals overturned the jury's decision and sent it back for a retrial. The family finally reached a confidential financial settlement with the school district.
In June 2009, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association released new guidelines suggesting coaches eliminate two-a-days during the first week of practices and gradually acclimate the players to the heat by adding pads and helmets over several days. They also recommend two-a-days not be held on consecutive days for the first two weeks of practice. Click here to read NATA’s preseason guidelines.
Indiana State University's Susan Yeargin was on the committee that put together the new guidelines.
"NCAA, college (sports), they have very strict guidelines whereas the high schools didn't,” Yeargin said about the guidelines. “So, we're hoping that the guidelines will get out to the high schools and they'll start using them."
But I-Team 8 has learned that's not happening in Indiana. The National Federation of State High School Associations, located in Indianapolis, says it doesn't mandate anything to states. However, they will share the guidelines with states.
Bobby Cox, Assistant Commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association says the association is comfortable with the preseason guidelines they already have in place and says it's up to schools and coaches to do what's best for their team. Cox told I-Team 8 that because many teams hold practices all summer that they are acclimated to the heat by the time practice officially begins on August 3. Cox also said the state's Commission of Sports Medicine advises the IHSAA on medical issues. He says if that group recommends the guidelines, then the IHSAA will give it further consideration.
About the guidelines, Cox said, “You can’t legislate common sense.” He said it’s the responsibility of school districts to hire competent coaches and make sure administrators have oversight of the football program.
In Indiana, IHSAA rules limit teams to a 90 minute practice session on the first two days (August 3-4) separated with at least a 2 hour break. On those first two days, they cannot tackle and cannot wear full football gear. On the third day, they can have full contact and there are no limitations on practice times.
Cox also referred us to a heat index calculator they provide to teams to educate them about how dangerous the temperatures are on a particular day.
Yeargin is disappointed that all schools aren’t embracing the guidelines. She said, “In today's world, parents expect a higher standard of care than a coach can provide, which is why these guidelines are needed.”
I-Team 8 took the two-a-day issue to two of Indiana's top coaches, both state champions. Eric Moore, Center Grove High School football coach, said "It (two-a-days) just get a bad name because some have abused and overused what is a privilege for football to be able to do that."
Bud Wright, whose Sheridan High School teams have won state titles nine times, said he thinks ‘5-6 two-a-day practices are fine.’
Both coaches believe they work together with trainers to detect signs of heat stroke and work together to prevent it.
"Our trainer is right with us on the field during practice and any time a kid doesn’t feel good or has problems, she is right there to help us," according to Coach Wright.
"Getting a drink is not a weak thing. It's not 1979, it's 2009. Sweat is not pain leaving your body. It's telling you that you need to hydrate to cool down," added Coach Moore.
Heat stroke is so serious that a pill developed by NASA for astronauts is now in use on the football field. It is an ingestible thermometer that monitors a body's core temperature through a remote handheld device on the sidelines.
ISU’s Yeargin has used it extensively in research and believes it can help detect the signs of trouble.
She believes devices like this are necessary. She warns, "The medical care of an athlete should not be put into the hands of a coach."
In the NFL, the thermometer is used by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings know firsthand the danger of heat. In 2001, Vikings star Korey Stringer collapsed and died from heat stroke. It was the very same day that heat killed Travis Stowers.
I-Team 8’s Karen Hensel asked the Stowers if they thought the coaches were negligent. Sherry Stowers said, "I think so. Travis gave all the signs that day: a headache and vomiting. He was swerving and not hitting things."
"No football game is worth a childs life,” added Alan Stowers. “No football practice is worth a child's life."
The Stowers family hopes coaches will adopt the new preseason heat guidelines presented by NATA.
"There is nothing wrong with the game,” said Sherry Stowers. “It is a good game and it is a good tradition. But when you are not paying attention to the signs that would save someone’s life, tradition doesn't seem like much when you are standing beside a casket.”
Jason Stinson, a coach in Kentucky, faces reckless homicide charges after the death of a player, Max Gilpin, last summer. It could be a precedent setting case. Coaches and athletic directors all over Indiana are watching the case to see the outcome. The trial is scheduled for August 2009.