Heat vs. football: High school teams begin practice with safety-first approach

After their first day of practice in the July heat, Goose Creek High School football players Cooper Pippin (foreground) and Bryan Flute take advantage of the cool-down tubs on Friday.

A transfer student knocked on Berkeley High School football coach Jeff Cruce’s door. He wanted to join the football team.

Cruce, who is in his first season at the Moncks Corner school, is always looking for talent. But he’s also looking out for what’s best for his players.

“Are you in shape?” Cruce asked the prospective player. “Have you been working out? You just can’t come out and play football. It’s dangerous out there. It’s 100 degrees. You have to be ready. You have to be in shape. Hit the weights, get in shape and come back next year.”

Cruce said he won’t take chances when it comes to student-athletes and their health. The Berkeley Stags, like most high school football teams around the state, held their first day of practice Friday.

The opponent was the weather, with temperatures in the mid-90s and a heat index close to 110. Coaches and trainers kept a close eye on the players and the thermometer while urging their players to take water breaks, take off their helmets and let the staff know if they felt dizzy or faint.

Most schools in the Lowcountry had certified athletic trainers before this year. Seven more teams in Charleston County have them now, thanks to an agreement between the school district and Roper St. Francis Healthcare.

Certified athletic trainers from Roper St. Francis will work at Baptist Hill, Burke, Garrett Tech, Lincoln, Military Magnet, North Charleston and Stall.

“Summertime heat in the Lowcountry is one risk factor that must be considered by high school athletes, their parents and coaches. In fact, two teen athletes in the state actually died of heat illness in the past four years,” said Dr. Robert Schoderbek Jr., the medical director of Roper St. Francis Sports Medicine.

“Now certified athletic trainers will be present not only to evaluate and treat injuries, but to try to prevent sports-related health issues by identifying problems in advance, ” he said.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C., reported that 132 football players suffered heat-related deaths in the U.S. from 1931 through 2010, including a record eight in 1970.

There have been 46 football players die from heat stroke since 1995, including 35 high school players, according to the center.

Frederick O. Mueller, the center’s director, said all heat-related deaths are preventable.

“A player has to tell a coach if he’s not feeling well,” Mueller said. “A coach has to know his players’ situations. If a player spends the summer in low humidity in the mountains and then returns to a humid climate, he needs to tell the coach. And if there is a major medical emergency, the coach has to have a plan.

“Water and rest breaks, those are keys too,” Mueller added. “When the heat index hits 110, 115, coaches should consider canceling practice.”

The precautions being taken today are in stark contrast to the days when practices included no water breaks, the distribution of salt tablets and a macho attitude.

Ernie Drews is in his 12th year as a certified athletic trainer at Goose Creek High School. He played high school football and remembers that the so-called good old days actually weren’t so good.

“It was totally different back then,” Drews said. “It was old school. It was something out of ‘Remember the Titans’ when (coach) Herman Boone said water makes you weak. That was the mindset 25 years ago. Today, the water is flowing at practice. You can’t deny kids water. You have to give them water.”

Before Goose Creek players begin practice, Drews goes to weatherbug.com to get the latest conditions. He also goes outside and pulls out a state-of-the-art heat index monitor, which measures temperature and humidity.

Inside, there are three 100-gallon tanks of ice water to submerge and cool a player in an emergency situation.

Goose Creek head coach Chuck Reedy, who played high school football in Florida, recalls the way things were in the 1960s and ’70s.

“There was a time when the military shut down if (heat and humidity) got too bad,” he said. “We would practice when the Marines wouldn’t even go outside.”

At Stratford High School, head trainer Melissa Murray said the team will practice for 20 minutes, then take a 10-minute water break.

“If it gets really bad, we’ll work in even more water breaks,” she said. “We’ll have them sit in the shade and drink water. Our policy is ‘If you aren’t on the field, you need to have a water bottle in your hand.’

“We try to educate the players and their parents. We’ll give them water and fruit in between practice and advise them to eat healthy. We have a meeting for parents and give them packets that include information on proper nutrition, proper rest and symptoms of heat stroke. That’s made a big difference.”

Murray and her staff of student trainers also keep an eye on marching band members, who are practicing outdoors as well.

“We meet with them, give them the same information and advise them to keep hydrated,” she said. “We’re not out there for practice, but we’re there for them.”

Reach Philip M. Bowman at 937-5592 or on Twitter at @pandcphil.