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. The changes are likely to have the most impact on football. 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.
Earl Hawkins, Prince George's County Public Schools' athletic director, said the new guidelines will be a welcome addition.
“Player safety, that was always something that was overlooked for awhile,” he said. “With the NFL and NCAA being at the forefront of putting in standards for heat and concussions, it is the right time since we always want to protect our student-athletes.”
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 identically to the National Athletic Trainer's Associations' 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.
“When I got to the NFL, we were in full gear once a week,” Walker said. “When I was in college it was two days a week. In high school, kids are in full gear most of the week. I don't really think the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Private school leagues, such as the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, implemented similar heat-related rules last year.
The safety concerns are generally praised, but the proposed changes to practice rules are not sitting well with the area coaches.
“If we lose on-the-field practice time, I don't know if that's the right thing,” said Gwynn Park coach Danny Hayes. “If a kid is not in shape or prepared for a game, a ton of things can happen. Football is unlike any other sport since we have to deal with the rain, snow, heat, cold and wind.”
Frederick Douglass coach J.C. Pinkney hopes the new set of practice requirements will create uniformity throughout the state.
“The bigger issue we have is that many school systems have a different first day of school,” said Pinkney, who added he would like to know the rules soon so he can set a preseason schedule. “We all start practice on the same day, but our kids are back in school on, like, August 20. ... Hopefully this makes life a little more equal.”
Other coaches hope the state will adjust its practice dates to accommodate for any potential loss of on-field sessions due to the heat acclimatization process.
“It is good to protect from the heat, but when we start cutting practice time and cutting preparation time, the overall quality will suffer,” Henry A. Wise coach DaLawn Parrish said.
Outside the football community, coaches will also have to adapt.
“This is definitely going to impact football the most since the sport is all about two-a-days,” Eleanor Roosevelt girls soccer coach Marty Pfister said. “We just have to be more efficient.”