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.”
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.
Ned Sparks, the MPSSAA's executive director, said the guidelines will be formed by a committee with input from doctors, coaches and athletic directors. He also emphasized improving education and training programs for coaches as well as developing a statewide emergency medical procedure plan.
“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],” he said.
While the new regulations are still under development, several coaches forwarded emails to The Gazette that outlined proposed guidelines that are under consideration in Montgomery County. The proposals are virtually identical to the National Athletic Trainers' Association'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.
Perry Baker, Frederick County Public Schools' athletics supervisor, is pleased that student-athletes' safety is a primary concern.
“[The law] will define things more clearly,” he said. “We already have a lot of good practices in place.”
Multiple Frederick area football coaches also said they believe that any reduction in practice time will not be a major issue.
“College football has a heat acclimatization plan and it is the best way to go,” Middletown coach Kevin Lynott said. “Most of us already have rest breaks, recovery periods and other safety precautions in place. Now, it is just a matter of the state and county putting them on paper. Most programs have heavy conditioning programs that begin in June so getting used to the heat is an eight week process.”