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The Heat Index Rises on College Football

After the tragic death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair and allegations of a toxic culture at the University of Maryland, the spotlight has once again been shone on the demands of rigorous college football workouts in the offseason and preseason camp.

To understand the context of today it's worthwhile to go back to August 2001. Minnesota Vikings Offensive Tackle Korey Stringer collapsed and died during training camp. Just days later Northwestern football player Rashidi Wheeler collapsed and died during offseason workouts.

Those deaths sparked conversations about training camp, conditioning and about what type of oversight the medical and coaching staffs should have. That led to years of positive change.

In 2002 Houston Texans Head Coach Dom Capers, concerned about the intense Texas heat, broke tradition when he decided his team would never have two consecutive days of two-a-day practices. He started a 2-1-2-1 routine where his team would alternate two-a-days with one-a-day practices.

His idea gained a big proponent in Texas Head Coach Mack Brown who brought the idea to the college level. That started a movement away from a camp filled with grueling consecutive days of two-a-days in the heat.

It lead to more regulations on how many days teams could practice in full pads and how many days of live scrimmaging a team could have. The NCAA even established a set of “acclimation days” intended to build up to full pad preseason workouts.

Eventually it led to the complete elimination of two-a-day practices.

One of the adjustments made at Penn State after 2001 was utilizing the “Wet Bulb” measurement of temperature and relative humility to determine safe practice and workout conditions. If that measurement neared an unsafe level the team doctor had the ultimate authority to shut down a practice.

As for the offseason workouts, they’ve always been seen as a “proving ground.” Coaches get players up for 6 am workouts in the winter. In the summer they are in the heat of the day to forge a mental toughness for the upcoming season.

After 2001 new protocols were established requiring medical staff to be on site and a uniform plan to be followed in the event that something goes wrong. But even with all this, there are things that can go wrong. Football is a sport where many coaches believe the answer is always more practice, more workouts and in pushing players to their fullest limits.

Sometimes a new head coach sees many of the players recruited by the previous staff as not being good enough or not fitting the new system. The offseason workouts become the place where they push them to the point where many of those players will quit the team. The new coach gets those scholarships back to recruit new players.

It sounds brutal but every new coach knows he must produce within 2 or 3 years or get fired. They want to get as many of their guys in the system as they can. So with the pressure that coaches face, there are those who will exert that pressure downward and push the limits of what the players can handle.

But with the heat index already high on football coaches, player safety relies on a fully empowered medical staff able to intercede without repercussion to protect the health of the players. After all football is just a game, one that should never take precedence over the safety of the young men who play it.

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