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Heat-related injuries have been a hot topic despite the cool temperatures

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By Tommie Kendall

After all the talk from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association about heat-related injuries and prevention, I will say that it’s been a bit of an ironic summer.

Of course I think it’s been good talk — the safety of the athletes should be at the top of anyone’s list — but the irony comes in the fact that the weather has been abnormally cool so far this summer as teams all across Kentucky are preparing for the high school season ahead. I was waiting to write this column when the weather was more of a concern, but Tuesday was the first time the hot weather caused practices to either be delayed or cancelled — the temperature was in the 90s and the heat index was above the allowable limit for a full, normal practice.

During July, the temperature gauge never reached 90 degrees for the first time since records were kept, and it rained enough to make me consider building a boat — just in case.

Before teams were eligible to start practice on July 15, coaches from all over Kentucky were glued to their computers to complete a four-hour, state-mandated online course on medical and safety issues — a law that was passed during the 2009 General Assembly. At least one coach that passed that course must be at practice at all times this school year. Also, the KHSAA has re-emphasized its practice policies regarding heat and is keeping a close eye on those in charge.

“That online course is the only real big change we’ve made this year,” Henry County Athletics Director Todd Gilley said in a recent interview. “As far as at our school, we’ve had things in place to prevent those heat-related injuries for a long time and feel comfortable with those. We’ve been lucky so far this year with no hot days.”

The online course requirement and concern were prompted following the death of a Pleasure Ridge Park High School football player last August. Max Gilpin, a 15-year-old sophomore lineman, collapsed during a hot practice on Aug. 20 from an apparent heat stroke and died three days later. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind in Kentucky high school sports.

PRP head coach Jason Stinson was charged with reckless homicide in Gilpin’s death after some witnesses said players were denied water during the practice at which Gilpin collapsed after running sprints. The trial is set to begin Aug. 31. Stinson has pleaded not guilty.

According to Courier-Journal reports, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman, after what he called the most extensive investigation in the history of JCPS, said a district investigation “clearly indicated that Max Gilpin did not die as a result of any restriction in water breaks or denial of water.” The investigation interviewed 124 witnesses and ran 271 pages. The investigation concluded that neither Stinson nor his assistants violated state rules or district policy at the Aug. 20 practice where Gilpin and another player collapsed.

But testimony from some players and eye witnesses is in contrast to the findings in the investigation.

The cause of Gilpin’s death is debatable, but what’s not debatable is he ran sprints on a hot day, collapsed, and eventually died in a tragic twist of events.

Now, the KHSAA is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Both Henry County and Eminence are taking those same steps as well.

“We practice in the mornings to avoid the heat, and we have an emergency plan in place right now in case a situation does occur,” HCHS head football coach Chris Engstrand said three weeks after practice started. “We try to have the right steps in place so it’s never an issue. Things are the same as they’ve been in previous years, but we are more conscious now. We’re more aware.”

Four miles down the road at Eminence, the Warriors are taking just as much precaution. EHS head football coach Steve Frommeyer said he has a small pool at practice each day, and if the weather rises to a level of concern then he will fill it with cold water in case of an emergency. In his 25-year stretch as the head coach, this is his first year having a pool on standby.

“It wasn’t mandated to have the pool, but strongly encouraged,” Frommeyer said of his decision to steer on the safe side. “We haven’t had to use it yet mainly because we’ve had such tremendous weather so far. One thing we’ve been trying to do is really re-emphasize some of the points we’ve already been training on.”

Ironically, Frommeyer said this year he’s had to worry more about the stormy weather than the heat. He’s already had to cancel practice twice due to lightning, which is something he usually has to do for the heat. And that small pool remains empty.

One thing coaches are still required to do is measure the heat index daily at practice and record it for the KHSAA to check. The heat index combines air temperature and relative humidity in an attempt to determine the human-perceived temperature, or how hot it feels rather than what the temperature actually is. At Eminence’s football practice last Thursday — the first day of school for Henry and one of the hottest days this summer — the heat index never reached over 90.

According to the KHSAA guidelines, if the heat index is 95 degrees then ample water should be provided and available at all times; at 95-99 degrees then mandatory 10-minute water breaks should be every 30 minutes; at 100-104 degrees then it’s the same as 95-99 plus altering uniforms by removing items if possible and reducing time of outdoor activity; and at 104 degrees or higher then stop all outdoor activity and indoor activity if air conditioning is unavailable. The day Gilpin collapsed, the heat index recording was 94.

While other sports are not immune to heat-related injuries and possible death, football is the biggest concern due to time outside and extra practice gear. Other sports are still required to keep a track of the heat index and follow the guidelines. And, like Frommeyer does at Eminence, having a small pool at each practice could become the norm at all outdoor practices.

So, do I think the KHSAA is going overboard with the whole ordeal? Nope. You never know, that four-hour online course could be a life saver. It could have saved Gilpin’s.

I could be wrong, but when I think of Max Gilpin and that Aug. 20 practice I have a vision of the movie “Junction Boys” with coach Bear Bryant barking at his players until they fell over. Of course I wasn’t there and I have no idea what unfolded that dreadful day, but I do know a 15-year-old lost his life. And that’s something I never want to hear about again.

Tommie can be reached at (502)845-2858 or sports@hclocal.com. Follow his Twitter account at www.twitter.com/hcsports.