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Commentary: When high school football turns deadly

  • Story Highlights
  • Thirty-nine football players have died from heat stroke since 1995
  • 15-year-old Max Gilpin collapsed during football practice and died three days later
  • Mike Galanos: The goal isn't to restrict coaches but to keep kids safe
By Mike Galanos
HLN
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Mike Galanos hosts "Prime News" from 5 to 7 p.m. ET Mondays through Fridays on HLN. "Prime News" uses the day's most powerful headlines as a starting point for diverse perspectives, spirited debate and your points of view.

Jason Stinson was acquitted of any charges related to the death of a player who collapsed during practice.

Mike Galanos says coaches need to be smart and know when to alter practices because of hot weather.

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- We love our football in this country, don't we? Whether it's watching the pee-wees or the pros, there's nothing like taking in a game on a crisp fall afternoon.

You see your breath as you stand and cheer the pop of the pads or the last-minute touchdown. I love this game so much, I cried when I knew I wasn't big enough or fast enough to play anymore.

Many of us share that same passion. And we should share in the grief when a 15-year-old boy dies because of a football practice. We have to learn from the death of Max Gilpin so something like this never happens again -- because it could happen to any of our kids.

It was a hot, humid day in August 2008 in Louisville, Kentucky. Max and his Pleasure Ridge Park High School teammates were wrapping up the second of two practices that day. They finished with a grueling round of "gassers," or sprints.

Max's body was breaking down, and he didn't even know it. The sophomore collapsed. His body temperature had reached 107 degrees. He died three days later.

So who is to blame for this needless tragedy? Was the coach irresponsible in pushing his players so hard on such a hot day?

Prosecutors thought that was the case. So for the first time, a football coach faced criminal charges and had to go to trial for the death of one of his players.

David Stinson was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment. The state accused the coach of denying players water and even forcing them to run extra sprints as punishment on that hot August day.

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The coach's defense presented witnesses who said Max complained of not feeling well before practice even began and others who said the fact that he was on Adderall contributed to his high body temperature.

In the end, a jury acquitted Stinson of any charges related to Max's death.

From the moment I heard about this case, I never thought Stinson would be convicted. The charges were too harsh, and no jury would believe that he knowingly and maliciously put a player in a position that would lead to his death. But I think it is a good thing that this trial took place, and I hope coaches across the country now think twice about how they run their practices and whether they are putting our kids in danger.

Sadly, Max is not the first such tragic case. According to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 39 football players have died from heat stroke since 1995; 29 of them were playing for high school teams (the others were college and professional players and one sandlot incident).

The first thing we need to do to reduce the risk of any more heat-related deaths is to make sure a doctor gives our kids a full physical examination before they take the field. That means we go beyond listening to the high school freshman's heart and making him turn and cough.

One doctor on my show, "Prime News," said we should give them an EKG, and I agree. An electrocardiogram isn't expensive, and having one before a high school player's first season would help doctors diagnose pre-existing conditions.

Second, every coach should monitor how hot it is before and during practice. A heat index monitor costs less than $150, and that is a small price to pay for safety.

Let's look at what Stinson was dealing with in Kentucky. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association guidelines say that if the heat index is above 95, practice is altered. The heat index the day of Max's death was one degree away, at 94.

Two questions off that: Should the temperature be lowered to 92 or 90? And what happens when we alter practice? It should mean that helmets and shoulder pads come off, unless players are tackling. Regardless of the answers, put the rules in place so all coaches know and are on the same playing field.

Another thing to consider is how many times a team should practice during the scorching hot dog days of August. There is usually a "hell" week in there, when a team practices two times per day. I have no problem with that as long as a coach is smart about how hot it is out there.

Six years ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association forced college football teams to cut back two-a-day practices, especially at the start of the season, so players could become acclimatized to hot and humid weather. Going along with that, the National Athletic Trainers' Association advocates starting off with one-a-day practices and then two-a-days with a one-a-day in between.

The last thing, and this could be the most important, is to never deny a player water. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one of the best ways to prevent a heat-related illness is through proper hydration. So if a player is asking for a drink, give it to him.

The goal in all this is not to restrict coaches or how we practice football but to make sure we never have another story like Max Gilpin's. The sadness of seeing his mom sobbing in a courtroom as she had to relive her son's death was just heartbreaking. We don't want another coach on trial.

Stinson has said Max's death is a burden he will live with for the rest of his life, and I hope his story, and Max's tragic death, bring about needed changes to the game we love.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Galanos.

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