When Korey Stringer, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the NFL’s Minnesota franchise, died at the beginning training camp in August 2001 due to complications from heat stroke, Jay Walker was nearby as a good friend, teammate and reserve quarterback for the Vikings.
Now, as a lawmaker in the Maryland House of Delegates representing District 26 in Prince George’s County, Walker is at the forefront of trying to make Maryland high school sports preseason practices safer.
This spring, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill, signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), that requires county boards of education to develop policies for preseason-practice heat acclimatization. The law goes into effect July 1, and will be in place when high school teams begin preseason practices in August.
The law mandates that the guidelines include requirements specific to the duration of practice time, a recovery period and walk-through.
In other words, the structure of two-a-day practice is likely changing in order to promote player safety. For the time being, however, there remains uncertainty as to what the new structure will be. Currently, the state does not have any formal rules governing the length of preseason practice time as it relates to a heat acclimatization period.
“Being a football player, I understand the science revolving around this issue,” said Walker, one of the law’s primary sponsors. “I remember my father’s generation was told to take salt tablets, and then when athletes were told to put as much water in their system as possible. Now, we know those were both [bad ideas]. We want to be at the forefront of player safety especially in this climate.
“One of my friends died on the football field. … You look back on it and you realize [heat acclimatization rules] are worth it. You need someone in the position of authority that can relate.”
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association is scheduled to have minimum guidelines in place by June 22, said Quince Orchard High School football coach and Montgomery County football director Dave Mencarini. The MPSSAA guidelines will be passed on to individual counties, which are free to impose stricter policies. It is believed the heat acclimatization program will govern fall, winter and spring sports. Fall public school tryouts are scheduled to begin statewide on Aug. 11.
“We have committee that has representation from doctors, coaches and athletic directors,” said Ned Sparks, the MPSSAA’s executive director.
Sparks emphasized improving education and training programs for coaches as well as developing a statewide emergency medical procedure plan.
“We are going to take a look at what is going on nationally and try to come up with a reasonable set of guidelines. … There will be an overall policy and individual school systems aren’t bound by it, but at the same token, they better have a good reason not to abide by [the upcoming policy].
“The meat and bones [of the law] is how long teams can practice, but hopefully there will be more to it. No one wants to [be part of a heat-related illness], but they need to be aware of how to respond.”
William “Duke” Beattie, Montgomery County Public Schools’ Director of System-wide athletics, said the county will look at suggestions from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA).
“We are going to create heat acclimatization guidelines for all of our fall athletic teams,” Beattie said. “We will have a rather comprehensive policy for all fall sports that is represented by input from all sports, coaches and athletic directors.
“We obviously haven’t established any firm guidelines yet, but there may be a loss of practice time on the field over the course of the day. It won’t necessarily be a loss of instruction time. There are a lot of ways it can go, but at the end of the day, some of our coaches may have to alter their practice structure.”
Beattie also said the new guidelines will likely be universal to create a level playing field and include girls volleyball, a traditional indoor sport, since several schools will not have the air conditioning system turned back on when tryouts commence in August.
While the new regulations are still under development, several coaches forwarded The Gazette emails being circulated among Montgomery County football coaches that included proposed guidelines for the county. The proposals are virtually identically to the NATA’s consensus guidelines, which are aimed at enhancing the body’s response to exercising in the heat and minimizing the risks of heat-related illnesses.
According to the emails, the heat acclimatization period would be a 14-day process. During days one through five, activities would be limited to one three-hour practice and an additional one-hour walkthrough practice following a mandatory three-hour rest period. No sport-related activity, including meetings and weight lifting, could occur during the break. The walkthrough practice would include no sports equipment, including footballs.
Additionally, only helmets would be worn through the first two days of practice with helmets and shoulder pads permitted on the third, fourth and fifth days.
Beginning with the sixth day, teams would be allowed to practice in full pads with one three-hour session and a second two-hour practice. The mandatory three-hour rest period would still be required. Teams would also not be allowed to hold double sessions on consecutive days.
Scrimmages would not be conducted until after the seventh day of practice.
“When I got to the NFL, we were in full gear once a week,” Walker said. “When I was in college it was two days a week. In high school, kids are in full gear most of the week. I don’t really think the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Private school leagues, such as the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, implemented similiar heat-related rules last year.
“We fought it, but it ended up being okay,” Our Lady of Good Counsel football coach Bob Milloy said.
The safety concerns are generally praised, but the proposed practice rule changes are not sitting well with Montgomery County’s coaches. If the new restrictions are imposed in the current format, just a couple of traditional two-session practice days would be held. Once teachers are required to report back to school on Aug. 20, the eighth scheduled practice day, only one afternoon practice would be held.
“Myself and 99.9 percent of the other coaches I’ve talked to think this is probably the worst rule the state has ever come up with,” Seneca Valley coach Fred Kim said. “They feel this is a safety issue, but in reality, they are creating another safety issue by taking way instructional time. We have less time to prepare kids who have never played before. What happens if a kid doesn’t know how to tackle and breaks his neck or gets a concussion? We think we will probably lose 12 to 15 hours of practice time.
“They want to follow the NCAA football model, but high school is a completely different animal. In college, you have elite athletes that already know how to play the game. In high school, particularly Maryland since we aren’t allowed to have spring practice like Virginia, you need extra preparation time with full pads.”
Kim also said parents need to be better informed by coaches on proper training techniques for their children.
“I agree 100 percent that there is a risk playing football,” said Kim, who added that his players have access to water whenever needed. “My son has been playing football since he was 6 years old and is at Urbana High School and I make sure my son is prepared and has the best and safest equipment possible. I make sure, just like with my players, that he is well hydrated, exercised, eating right and in bed early. I think the state assumes the kids aren’t out here in the summer busting their butts and getting used to the heat. They think they are sitting around the house Facebooking, Xboxing and chatting online. That is false.”
Mencarini said other alternatives may need to be discussed in future years.
“The state is well aware of our concerns,” he said. “We are just going to do our best to adapt. … A heat acclimatization plan is absolutely necessary, but we are upset about the potential for decreased practice time. Ultimately this is going to hurt the quality of football throughout the state because we won’t have enough time to coach. I don’t know if it will happen, but maybe the start date [for the first game] can be pushed back a week.”
For first-year Col. Zadok Magruder coach Kevin Bernot, a potential loss of practice time looms even larger this year.
“Heat acclimatization is real and it needs to be done,” Bernot said. “But I think there will be some unintended negative consequences. If we can’t go full pads until days six and seven and then we have to go live in a scrimmage, that is not fair for the safety of the guys. We all are just going to have to be more efficient with our time. For us, with a new system to install, this year will definitely hurt.
“Also, are we going to ask the kids to be at school all day? When I was at Rockville, a lot of kids could walk back home during the break between practices. At a place like Magruder, a lot of the kids live further away and many don’t have cars. There is just a lot to think about.”
The angst does not just lie within the football community.
“In theory this is all a good idea and maybe they will put an athletic trainer at all the schools,” said Thomas S. Wootton field hockey coach Kearney Blandamer. “We’ve usually done the ‘hard stuff’ in the morning practice with conditioning and technical skill drills. In the afternoon, it has always been a little more mental strategy so it really wouldn’t help field hockey to have a walkthrough in the afternoon without a stick or ball so we would probably just forego the second practice.
“I really feel bad for the football coaches, though. Their sport is totally different than all the other ones. The law is definitely a football law. The only positive thing is that we are all going to be in the same boat.”
Magruder girls volleyball coach Scott Zanni, like many other coaches, just wants to know when he can start planning his practice schedule.
“Safety has to be the No. 1 priority,” Zanni said. “But the fact we are in early June and two and a half months away from the start of the season and we don’t know what is going to happen is tough. I’ve always run two-a-days, but many other schools may not have two practices. Whatever happens is going to happen, but I think we would all like to know what the rules are going to be.”