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BILL PLASCHKE

Football and heat are a dangerous combination

After a Newhall Hart High freshman goes into convulsions, coaches and CIF defend decision to practice in 100-degree weather.

September 30, 2010|Bill Plaschke

So how did you handle the heat?

If you were one of thousands of local high school football players laboring under heavy pads this week, the answer was, dangerously.

If you were Garrett Updegraft, one of the captains of the Newhall Hart High freshman team, the answer was almost deadly.

If you were his coach, you should have treated it more seriously.

If you were the California Interscholastic Federation, you should have stopped it altogether.

The recent record temperatures that drenched the Southland in sweat did little to dampen the enthusiasm of football bosses, many of whose teams continued to practice in full pads in 100-degree temperatures.

Sadly, there's no sunscreen invented to protect the kids from the adults.

Players don't understand enough to say anything. Parents are too afraid to say anything. And, despite legislating everything from practice time to concussions, the CIF refuses to do anything.

"Somebody has to stand up and say, you can't do this to kids,"' said Richard Saatzer, grandfather of Updegraft, whose story might chill you.

For one scary afternoon, the tough middle linebacker and running back slowly cooked into a frightened 15-year-old boy, with nobody in power seemingly able to help.

It began Monday, when his team practiced in full pads in temperatures that reached 113 degrees during the workouts.

Scott French, the freshman coach, defended the decision to practice, saying, "We have a lot of hot days here We're used to it."

Thom Simmons, spokesman for the CIF Southern Section, defended his organization's refusal to close practices on dangerously hot days, saying, "At the end of the day, those students are the school's responsibility."

Updegraft was always one of the toughest kids, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman who once competed in a Pop Warner playoff game while vomiting on the sidelines. But it turns out, 113 degrees was tougher, and on Monday night he complained of a bad headache.

Then, early in practice Tuesday, with the temperature at 100 degrees, he complained of dizziness and shortness of breath.

Folks at the practice said Updegraft was ordered to leave the field by a frustrated French. The coach claimed that he sent him to the shaded bleachers to cool down.

Not in dispute is that, while Hart continued to practice, Updegraft went into convulsions, causing Chad Kreuter, the parent of another Hart player, to run over and assist him.

"He was shaking, his vision was blurry, he wasn't breathing right," said Kreuter, a former major league catcher and USC baseball coach. "I was very scared for him."

While Kreuter treated the player with water and cold towels, French was summoned from the field. Once he arrived, the coach determined that Updegraft did not need emergency medical treatment, so he phoned Updegraft's mother Susan.

"The first thing he said was, 'You need to come pick up your son,' " Susan recalled. "The tone of voice was like, Garrett had done something wrong."

Susan Updegraft rushed to the field, retrieved her son, and raced to a local medical center. There, according to her, the doctor said the heat contributed to a recurrence of his dormant childhood asthma, praised Kreuter's quick thinking, and ripped the team.

"He said he couldn't believe they were practicing in this heat," she said. "He said Garrett was lucky he was in such good shape, or it could have been much worse."

Garrett was feeling well enough to attend the team's weekly pizza party that night, raising the eyebrows of coaches who wondered about a quick recovery. Susan said she brought him there to show French, who had not called to check on his player, that the kid was OK despite him.

Garrett was cleared to play in Hart's Thursday afternoon game against Birmingham, so all's well that ends…well, not so fast.

Susan Updegraft is still looking for answers. She wants to know why her son's care was left in the hands of another parent, why the school didn't immediately call 911, and why they continue to practice on 100-degree days.

"We were very fortunate," she said. "But I want to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else's child."

French, a prep and youth coach for a dozen years, said his experience taught him that Garrett Updegraft didn't need an ambulance.

"I've been around heat stroke before, and from what I observed, he didn't need an ambulance," French said. ''We followed procedure, I filled out a report, and I'm satisfied with how we handled it."

French added that after Updegraft left for the hospital, he brought his kids off the field in deference to the heat. "You can see that I was taking this seriously," he said.

His head coach backed him, with Mike Herrington saying, "We live in a desert-type community, we deal with this kind of weather all the time, and from what I understand, we handled it properly."

If they did, then why was a football mom so upset, and a football dad so scared, and a strong kid so sick?

Garrett Updegraft got lucky. Hart High got lucky. The CIF got lucky. The heat is off. For now.

Bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter.com/billplaschke

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