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Death by Degrees

After Korey Stringer became a heatstroke victim last year, the Vikings said they did nothing wrong, but his widow is suing them for $100 million

July 07, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANKATO, Minn. — The sun had barely peeked over the hills of Blue Earth County and already local cattlemen were bracing for the worst. It was July 31, 2001, and Minnesota was in the middle of its most intense heat wave in a decade. A radio warning advised farmers to keep livestock out of the sun. It was too hot even for grazing.

One of those farmers, Jerry Seitzer, started the day by turning on the sprinklers in his brick-red barn, dousing his cows with hundreds of gallons of cool water while circulating the air with massive fans. His philosophy: "You have to treat the cows like you treat yourself."

A few hours later and 10 miles away, in the withering heat of training camp, the Minnesota Vikings' Korey Stringer was dying.

Stringer, 27, a Pro Bowl offensive tackle, collapsed after the morning practice on the second day of training camp and died of heatstroke complications 13 hours later at a nearby hospital. He is believed to be the only NFL player ever to die of heat illness, and his widow, Kelci, has filed a $100-million wrongful-death lawsuit against the Vikings and their medical personnel. Kelci has brought the suit on behalf of herself and other Stringer heirs, including their 4-year-old son, Kodie, and Korey's parents. The trial is set for next summer.

The Vikings say they did everything they could to save the 335-pound tackle, who struggled to keep his weight in check throughout his career. They insist they didn't miss signs that he was in distress, pointing to a three-month investigation by the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Division clearing the club of any direct responsibility for Stringer's death. The NFL echoed the Viking claim that Stringer received "exemplary treatment" and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he is largely satisfied with the way teams approach training-camp practices and heat-related issues. Teams begin training camps this month.

Almost four months after Stringer's death, the Vikings disclosed he had a locker full of controversial and possibly dangerous dietary supplements on the day he collapsed. The revelation cast doubt on the notion heatstroke alone killed him.

Attorneys for the Stringers say there is no basis for that theory, arguing a posthumous toxicology report showed the player's system was "absolutely clean" and offered no evidence he was taking supplements. They say the Vikings are guilty of gross negligence and could not have been more blind, missing all the warning signs and letting precious minutes slip away as the player's temperature rocketed to 108.8 degrees, possibly higher.

Interviews and depositions indicate Stringer was left alone, writhing on the ground, while fellow linemen trudged through a blocking drill, then essentially went untreated in an air-conditioned trailer for approximately 40 minutes under the watch of an unregistered, 22-year-old trainer. All this occurred a day after an overheated Stringer vomited five times, failed to finish the morning practice and sweated profusely into the night.

"The first day of camp starts a chain of events leading to his death," said Paul DeMarco, an attorney for the Stringer family. "It's an unbroken chain from then on."

High heat and humidity made for a heat index of 110 on the day Stringer collapsed, one of the Upper Midwest's hottest days in a decade. Stringer attorneys say their weather experts will testify the day felt between 120 and 130 degrees to the players, who were in full pads for the first time. Stringer and the rest of the offensive players wore dark purple jerseys, which made them feel even hotter. In addition to Stringer, 10 Vikings were treated for heat-related problems on July 30 and 31, Stringer lawyers said.

Said DeMarco: "If Korey had been given no more care and attention than the farmers gave the cows, he'd still be alive."

A Reluctant Witness

Stringer's Viking medical records, obtained by The Times, reveal the Vikings had treated him for heat-related problems in years past, even making a special notation a year earlier. Wrote team physician Dr. David Knowles after treating Stringer for nausea, diarrhea and severe muscle cramps on July 24, 2000: "I will follow him closely at training camp."

A year later, at the conclusion of Stringer's final practice, the only person watching him closely was freelance photographer Billy Robin McFarland, who was aware Stringer had problems the day before so he kept an eye on him throughout practice. He noticed Stringer looked exhausted, disoriented and out of step all morning.

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