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Still at a Loss

Alan and Sherry Stowers seek answers almost a year after their son collapsed from heatstroke during football practice and died

July 21, 2002|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIRKLIN, Ind. — Alan and Sherry Stowers want to know why their son, Travis, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound 17-year-old, died after high school football practice last year.

They want to know what went wrong, why, how.

"If I have a calf die here on the farm," Alan says, "I do whatever I have to do to find out why that calf died. Travis wasn't a calf. Travis was a boy. And nobody seems to care about finding out why he died."

Alan and Sherry Stowers want to make things better. They want to know what happened at Clinton Central High's football practice last July 31 and they want to make sure things have changed. Changed for their other sons, Jared, a sophomore, and Clayton, an eighth-grader. And for other sons who head off to football practice every summer.

If practice lasted too long, they want to know it will never happen again. If not enough water was offered to the players, they want coaches to make sure that will never happen again. If the boys on the field weren't being watched closely enough, if no one in authority paid attention to the boy who vomited in the morning, who was wobbling in the afternoon and who was dead by evening, then Alan and Sherry Stowers would like to know that from now on football coaches everywhere will pay attention.

"We taught our children to be honest, faithful, responsible and accountable for their actions," Sherry says. "How can we not ask the same of the coaches and the school?"

On July 31, 2001, Travis Stowers, a nationally recognized livestock caller, talented public speaker, earnest owner of calves, hogs and horses, future veterinarian and modestly talented but fervently interested offensive and defensive tackle, drove himself and his younger brother Jared to the second day of football practice.

In the morning session of two-a-days, Travis vomited into his helmet. At lunch, Travis told Jared he wasn't feeling well. After running a series of 10 40-yard sprints, the Bulldogs left the field for water. Travis walked unsteadily, Jared said, then rested his shoulders against his brother.

"Travis said he wasn't feeling good," Jared says. "He sat down and leaned on my leg. He couldn't get up."

Jared Stowers sometimes blames himself, his mother says.

"Jared was a freshman. It was his second day of high school football. And Jared keeps trying to figure out what he could have done," Sherry says. "Jared didn't do anything wrong, but he keeps trying to figure things out."

The Stowers family is speaking publicly about the death of their son for the first time.

Next week the family plans to file a lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the Clinton Central school district and the Indiana High School Athletic Assn. It took the Stowerses nearly six months after Travis' death to hire Indianapolis attorney Bruce Kehoe.

This is not about money. According to Indiana law, a state institution can't be held liable for more than $300,000 in damages. The Stowerses aren't doing this for the money. Kehoe has held several settlement conferences with the school. What the family wants most of all is change. Change in the way practice is conducted and monitored.

Filing this lawsuit hurts. Sherry is a teacher in the county district. Alan played football at the local high school, as did his brothers, father and grandfather.

There is a photo montage in the family's living room. Travis' great-grandfather, Oren, is in his stance, wearing a leather helmet and no facemask; Max, Travis' grandfather, is standing tall and looking stern in his football gear; Alan, a 1978 graduate of Clinton Central, is a proud Bulldog in his gear; and there are Travis, Jared and Clayton, together, in helmets and pads.

"We are friends with the seven school board members," Alan says. "The principal [Ron Dunn] was my driver's ed teacher. The athletic director [Linda Barnett] was a teacher. We know these people. This is not what we wanted."

In a couple of weeks the Clinton Central Bulldogs will begin football practice. Two-a-days starting in the morning. A break for lunch. Then more practice. Just like last year.

George Gilbert will begin his 15th season as Bulldog coach. On his Web site, Gilbert says the Bulldogs lost a lot of talent from last year's 7-4 team and that they will need to toughen up on defense. It will be a busy year for Gilbert. He has added wrestling coach to his job description.

The summer heat has arrived in central Indiana, just like last year. The humidity rises during the day. By 1 p.m. at the Stowers home, it feels as if you must push through a wet paper towel to walk from the car to the front door. Insects seem suspended in the thick air.

On the day Travis collapsed at football practice, the heat index was 110. That's what the Stowers family's attorney, Kehoe, has discovered.

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