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Top Athletes Fall Victim to Heat

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Aug. 1, 2001 -- Over the next few weeks on fields across the country, high school, college and professional football players will begin training for the upcoming season with twice-daily practices in the broiling summer sun. Tragically, the combination of extreme heat and strenuous exertion has already proven deadly for two such players.

Minnesota Vikings' right tackle Korey Stringer, 27, died Wednesday morning of complications from heat stroke after collapsing during practice Tuesday afternoon, which was the hottest day of the year. He was unconscious upon arrival at a Mankato, Minnesota, hospital and had a temperature of more than 108°. In a statement to the press, the Vikings said Stringer's organs failed throughout the day, and he died at 1:50 a.m.

Aspiring college player Eraste Thomas Autin, 18, collapsed July 19 during a workout in 102° heat and remained in a coma for six days before his death. The University of Florida's incoming freshman was the 18th high school or college football player to die of heat stroke during the last six years.

"Something is going on here that I am concerned about, and I think other people are also," Frederick O. Mueller, PhD, of the University of North Carolina's sports medicine department tells WebMD. "In several years prior to this, there weren't any heat-related deaths among college or high school players."

Mueller and UNC colleagues keep track of football-related deaths among college and high school players. They recorded four heat stroke deaths last year, two among high school players and two among college players. Stringer is believed to be only the second NFL player to die of heat-related causes.

According to press reports, the Vikings worked out in full pads Tuesday, the second day of training camp. Temperatures were in the 90s, but stifling humidity pushed the heat index to a high of 110°. At least five other players had heat-related problems, according to a team trainer. Stringer, the trainer said, vomited at least three times during the training session but did not call for help until after it had ended.

National Athletic Trainers Association, or NATA, spokesman Douglas Casa, PhD, ATC, said he did not yet know enough about the two recent deaths to comment on them specifically. But he adds that players are often reluctant to acknowledge problems with heat because they are afraid of being perceived as "wimps." Casa, a professor at the University of Connecticut, co-authored a recent NATA position statement on hydration.

"When players are fighting for positions on a team, whether it is at the high school, college or pro ranks, they don't want to appear to be wimpy because they think it can cost them their job," Casa tells WebMD. "That is why it is important that athletic trainers, the team physician, and the coaches work together and have a protocol set up that includes rest breaks and frequent hydration to deal with extreme weather. It should be out of the player's hands."

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