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Heat Shields

From pills that measure body temperatures to gloves that record sweat, college and pro football teams playing it safer in training camp this summer.

August 23, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Two years after the death of Minnesota Viking tackle Korey Stringer -- the only known heatstroke fatality in NFL history -- the football world has sharpened its focus on how to monitor players and how far to push them when temperatures soar.

University of Connecticut football players swallowed heat-sensitive "radio pills" as part of a just-concluded NCAA study that kept track of their core body temperatures before, during and after practices for eight consecutive days. Oklahoma and West Chester (Pa.) College participated in similar studies.

In the Connecticut study, 15 Husky football players swallowed vitamin-sized capsules containing quartz crystals that vibrate according to body temperature. The $40 pill, which remains in a player's system for about a day, emits a low-frequency radio wave. That signal can be picked up by a researcher holding a device the size of a hand-held computer within a foot of the player.

"The absolute convenience of it is what makes it great," said Dr. Doug Casa, director of athletic training education at Connecticut. "You don't have to strip somebody down. You don't have the awkwardness of taking someone's clothes off to get a rectal temperature. It's all right there."

Casa said he can envision a day when use of the pills is commonplace, especially in the NFL, where teams spend tens of millions of dollars on players, and, by comparison, the cost of the pills and monitoring device is nominal.

"If you have a guy that has had previous issues with heat illness, this is like a safety net," he said. "And if somebody did have heatstroke, you could monitor them as you were treating them with an ice bath."

The Connecticut players were divided into three groups of five according to their size -- receivers and defensive backs; linebackers and running backs; and linemen. Not surprisingly, the temperatures of bigger players tended to rise faster. Casa said it was not uncommon for players to run temperatures between 101 and 103 degrees while they were exercising, and some players ran even hotter.

"You feel like you're on the cutting edge in terms of heat study," said Connecticut quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who participated in the study, which also involved testing his urine and monitoring his diet.

"I think any way they can make the training safer you're getting more out of your athletes," he said. "The more people know their limits, the more they can play right to those limits."

Meanwhile this summer, three NFL teams -- Philadelphia, Carolina and Chicago -- participated in a study that required players to wear plastic gloves after practices so their sweat could be collected and analyzed.

The Jacksonville Jaguars resorted to less-scientific means of prevention after two 300-pound defensive linemen collapsed in relatively mild conditions during the first week of training camp. Clearly shaken, first-year Coach Jack Del Rio rescheduled some daytime practices for night. Del Rio's training-camp practices were far more relaxed than those of his predecessor, Tom Coughlin, and several were conducted with the players wearing baseball caps.

"If people think I'm Bear Bryant out here running the Junction Boys, they can say that," Del Rio told reporters last month. "But it's not that kind of effort."

The Jaguars had their third heat-related injury less than two weeks later when receiver Donald Hayes dropped to a knee after a 90-minute session on an 82-degree day. He never lost consciousness but began suffering full-body cramps and was rushed to the hospital.

"I don't have an answer for it," Del Rio said.

Kelci Stringer, whose husband died 12 hours after collapsing on the second day of Viking camp in 2001, has been searching for answers ever since. She filed suit against the NFL in U.S. District Court last month, claiming the league fosters a "deadly culture" of abusive exercise that contributed to Korey Stringer's death. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, names the NFL, sports equipment maker Riddell, and Dr. John Lombardo, who advises the NFL on health issues and also is the head of the league's drug program.

Although 15 football players died in the U.S. last season as a direct or indirect result of the game -- five because of severe head injuries, and 10 because of causes provoked by vigorous exercise -- there were no heat-related deaths. That was an anomaly considering 21 players died from heatstroke between 1995 and 2001, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. There have been no heat-related football deaths this summer.

Since Stringer's death, it has become more newsworthy when a pro or college player sits out of practice because of the heat. On Thursday, UCLA running back Tyler Ebell was sidelined because of exhaustion and underwent tests at the school's medical center.

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