COLUMBIA, S.C. - Top researchers on heat-related illnesses called on high schools to cut back two-a-day preseason football practices the way the NCAA forced college teams to do six years ago.
Douglas Casa co-authored a study from the National Athletic Trainers Association released earlier this year. He spoke Thursday to about 250 college and high school athletic trainers at the South Carolina Athletic Trainers Association.
The NCAA adjusted its football practice guidelines in 2003 to mandate five days of single-session workouts to acclimatize players to sweltering summer heat.
College 'coaches were screaming about that before it happened,' Casa said. 'You don't hear anything about that now. They've found players are healthier, fresher and perform better during the season.'
At least 29 high school players have died from heat-related illness since 1995 - sometimes, Casa says, because coaches and personnel don't react quickly enough to the symptoms. 'Coaches think someone didn't do the proper conditioning over the summer or that they're a wimp, that they're no good for the team,' he said.
The NATA guidelines call for five days of single-session practices. Once two-a-days start, they should be followed by a single-day session. The recommendations cover the first 14 days of practice.
Casa told the crowd that he watched one TV report about last month's release - and cringed when a Texas coach said while such suggestions might be necessary in other areas, they were not needed in the Lone Star State where teams sometimes go through three-a-day sessions with just an hour break between.
'If there's one message you should take back, it's please keep the coach away from my sick child,' Casa said.
Casa is consulting in the lawsuit for the mother of Max Gilpin, the 15-year-old football player in Kentucky who died in August three days after collapsing at practice. The coach, David Jason Stinson, pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide. A trial is scheduled for next month.
The hotel conference hall was packed with trainers and health professionals eager not to join the ever-increasing list of summertime tragedies. Just Wednesday, a junior defensive back at Western Carolina died after collapsing during an offseason workout. The school said Ja'Quayvin Smalls took part in his first workout and complained of cramps at the beginning of sprints.
Sean Hoppe, head athletic trainer at Ridge View High School in Columbia, was texting his athletic director during Casa's presentation about upgrading their policies and plans to be ready for summer workouts.
Hoppe said administrators, coaches and training staff are all on the same page about keeping players safe during grueling sessions. He was unsure if Ridge View would adopt NATA's call for acclimatization.
'There are a lot of things here that can help,' he said.
Casa knows too well that his biggest barrier will surely be old-school coaches, who believe two-a-days toughen a team.
'I don't buy it,' Casa said. 'Why can't you win a championship starting two-a-days on day six instead of day one?'
Casa counseled trainers to have a policy in place should heat illness strike. Quickly identifying the problem and taking proper steps to reduce a player's temperature is essential.
Casa would know: Twenty-four years ago he collapsed of heat stroke close the finish of a 10K race near Buffalo. Watching coverage of his ordeal on the news that night set off a single-minded passion to prevent heat-related deaths. 'That kind of burns in your brain,' he said.
He recommended using a rectal thermometer for the most accurate temperature reading and full-water immersion as soon as possible.
Casa said he understands things won't change overnight. 'It's going to be at least 10 years until we make some progress,' he concluded. 'But you've got to start somewhere.'