Ronde Barber remembers, with all too vivid clarity, the knot that formed in his chest as he watched a teammate collapse. It was one of those chilling training-camp moments that every NFL player fears, a potentially lethal combination of relentless heat, extreme physical exertion and a body that literally begins to shut down from the stress.
Three years ago at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Barber, one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, watched one of his less-decorated position mates, a second-year player named Ronyell Whitaker, give his all on a hot, humid day.
"Ronyell was an ‘effort guy' – if you told him to do something he'd do it hard and fast, and doing that was his only chance to make the team," Barber recalled. "He essentially ran himself to exhaustion in practice, and he got to the locker room and just fell out. He was standing in the training room and all of sudden, bam. He passed out and hit the floor, and emergency people came rushing in.
"It was so scary. He had a rough two or three days in the hospital, and (Bucs officials) were telling the players he almost died on the way there. When you see something like that, it affects you for a long time. Football's a great game, but you realize it's not worth dying for."
Thankfully, Whitaker recovered and ended up on the Bucs' practice squad. Now a member of the Minnesota Vikings, he spent the past few weeks competing for a roster spot in Mankato, Minn. – the place where the Vikings' All-Pro tackle, Korey Stringer, died from heat-related complications six years ago.
I'd love to be able to tell you that Stringer's death provoked a pronounced change in the way NFL teams conduct their training camps, especially when so many respected doctors, exercise physiologists and even military commanders insist that most organizations are doing a horrible job of preparing their players to compete at an optimal physical level. Certainly, there have been some improvements in the way many teams monitor heat and dehydration, but the dangerous conditions remain.
"Korey was a great guy, and I wish there was some sort of significant shift initiated because of what happened to him," said St. Louis Rams tackle Todd Steussie, one of Stringer's former Vikings teammates. "But things haven't changed enough, and the essential elements of heat and stress are still there. You hate to think of it like this, but another tragedy could definitely occur."
I spoke with Steussie earlier this month during a drive from St. Louis to Jackson, Miss., where that afternoon I watched the New Orleans Saints' two-hour training camp practice. It took place in the middle of a vicious heat wave that pushed temperatures to more than 100 degrees, with stifling humidity.
The previous day in Mississippi, Lonnie Magee, a 17-year-old lineman on the Mount Olive High School football team, had collapsed during practice and died from heatstroke. In response, a local judge had issued a temporary restraining order forbidding school-sponsored outdoor activities between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. in six counties.
"Sean (Payton, the Saints' coach) is pretty smart about taking care of his players and doing the best he can," Fujita said, "but the heat index today was 113, and if it hits a certain number, the league should force teams to move practice indoors. To me, you can't leave it up to the team because they're going to go as far as they can. I think it's up to (NFLPA president) Gene Upshaw to create a safer environment for us, and then it's up to (commissioner) Roger Goodell to respond to his concerns."
Even before Stringer's death, the NFLPA was studying the issue of player safety in extreme heat. In the wake of the tragedy, the union and league formed a joint task force which thus far only has been given enough clout to issue recommendations to teams.
"The league sent out some guidelines, but there were no mandates," said task-force member Mark Verstegen, the NFLPA's director of performance for player safety and welfare. "We're starting to see some small steps in the right direction when it comes to thermal regulation, but there's still a lot more that needs to happen. If another player has to die to get more momentum for serious change, then shame on us, because the information is there that this is not the best approach in terms of welfare and optimal player performance."
Verstegen, an esteemed figure in the sports-training field, definitely would know. As the founder and chairman of Athletes' Performance, where numerous high-profile performers go for state-of-the-art physical preparation, Verstegen typically pushes his clients into peak condition just before the start of training camp.
"We build them up to withstand the rigors of camp, and then teams break them down," he said. "If we can minimize the degree to which their bodies are depleted during those six weeks, they'll have a significant competitive advantage during the season."
One major problem is that the theoretical basis for staging a rigorous training camp no longer exists. In the old days many players got out of shape during the offseason, and camp served as a cram session that forced them to shed excess weight and regain their wind. That notion, in 2007, is totally obsolete: The proliferation of OTAs (organized team activities) throughout the offseason – they're allegedly voluntary, but they're treated as mandatory by all but the most secure players – has compelled most players to maintain their conditioning on a year-round basis.
"You're in the best shape of your life, and then you go into camp and get beat to hell, without the proper time to allow your body to recover," said Kansas City Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley, who as an NFLPA player rep for the Saints and Rams pushed for improvements in player safety during camp. "When I was active in the union, we entrusted people to go out and research the situation, and we went to the military and asked them what they do. When we laid it out for them, the way we prepare and the way we train leading up to the season, they thought it was completely archaic and stupid.
"Besides, despite the cliché, we're not ‘preparing for battle.' It's not like we're going to Iraq to fight in the desert. We're playing a game."
Verstegen, who has spoken to several military experts, agrees that even soldiers tend to be prepared in a less stressful manner.
"These guys are probably the most hardcore out there, and they still have very strict policies in terms of addressing thermalization," Verstegen said. "Before troops are deployed in extreme conditions, they're given time for their bodies to adjust."
Such an enlightened approach might have saved Stringer, who came to Minnesota's 2001 camp overweight (he was listed at 335 pounds) and, on the first day of practice, had to be carted off the field. The next morning, with temperatures in the low 90s, he vomited three times during routine conditioning drills and, by that afternoon, was felled by heatstroke. He lost consciousness after entering an air-conditioned trailer, and his body temperature rose to 108.8 degrees, triggering a series of organ failures. He was rushed to the hospital and died 15 hours later.
Many players believe that, in the aftermath of Stringer's death, the NFL's primary motivation was to cover its own butt and insulate itself from potential legal action. As Steussie says, "I don't think any change was initiated after Korey's death because if teams change their policies, it's like admitting guilt. If the commissioner had announced sweeping changes, it would have opened up teams to liability."
When it was discovered that Stringer had ephedrine in his system, the league quickly placed it on its list of banned substances, which many players saw as an attempt to slough off blame for the other responsible factors.
"They were looking for a scapegoat for sure," Turley said. "They think ‘Ripped Fuel' caused Korey Stringer's death, and not that they were harping on him to lose weight and not letting his body recover? Please.
"On the day Korey died the heat index in Mankato was 105. At Nicholls State (in Thibodaux, La., where the Saints trained) it was 135, and we were out there banging in full pads. They're on the radio telling you to keep your pets inside, yet it's safe for us to practice? That same year Sam Clancy, one of our assistant coaches, got sick from heat exhaustion just from coaching and had to be life-flighted to New Orleans. It was scary."
As Verstegen points out, NFL players are more susceptible to trauma because "all of the ways that you can dissipate heat – through your head, your armpits, your torso, your legs, behind the knees – are covered up with helmets and uniforms and tape." It doesn't take a medical degree to understand such concepts, yet some coaches are better than others about taking the advice of the trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and doctors who theoretically are monitoring player welfare during training camp.
"No medical person has ever deviated from the fact that trying to get a team ready in extreme heat is just not helpful," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "It isn't helpful over the long-term or the short-term. I have letters from my medical people spelling it out. This whole business of conditioning can only go so far."
Back when he played at Arkansas, Jones recalled, "it was the first time I'd ever gotten water at practice. In high school we'd hide lemons in the webbing of the helmet, and you'd reach up there and suck out the juice. That had to be done undercover, of course."
Former St. Louis Cardinals coach Jim Hanifan said, "Years ago they didn't give us water, because they thought it was a sign of mental weakness. We had to suck on wet towels, and it was so gross because you'd realize too late that some idiot had blown his nose in one of them."
If you've ever wondered why games in the first week of the regular season tend to be so sloppily played, fatigue is a likely culprit. A conversation with former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson before the team's 2000 opener against the Eagles ("I'm tired. We're tired," Woodson told his boss), and the 41-14 defeat that followed convinced Jones that the team's approach to training camp had to change. In 2002, Jones moved the team's camp from Wichita Falls, Texas, to San Antonio, where practices were held indoors in the Alamodome. From 2004-06 the team trained in temperate Oxnard, Calif., before returning to the Alamodome this summer.
A majority of teams have shortened the duration of camps and cut back on two-a-day practices in recent years, and it should be noted that several teams with relatively restrained approaches (the Bears, Colts and Patriots) have fared well.
"The whole concept of two-a-day practices is outdated," Barber said. "In five or six years, I honestly don't think there'll be any more two-a-days. In the meantime, it's getting so much better. We even have a 15-minute cool-down period in the middle of our practices where we go into an air-conditioned trailer and lower our body temperatures."
The task force assesses everything: the time practices are held, how many days in a row the heat has been at a certain level, accessibility to ice towels, mandatory water consumption and the shade breaks.
"You're starting to see some positive impact in player safety and welfare; you see it with the concussion situation," Verstegen said. "And we need to do this because it's healthy for the players, healthy for the game and, at the end of the day, healthy for the fans. We have to lead by example and hope that our efforts trickle down to college and high school and all the way to youth sports."
It's a noble sentiment, and one that makes far too much sense not to adopt as a guiding principle. If and when that happens, then Korey Stringer's legacy finally will be what it should have been all along.
I'M HOT 'CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Marco Materazzi, thanks for telling us what you said to Zinedine Zidane that made the French star go all neocon in the World Cup final. I don't approve of the word choice, but man, was it effective: Not only did you become Italy's greatest hero of the 21st century, but you even got some love from France coach Raymond Domenech.
• I can't necessarily say this about all of New England's recently acquired wideouts, but Donte' Stallworth is one smart dude. After Brady threw a pair of interceptions in the Patriots' 27-24 preseason defeat to the Titans on Friday night, Stallworth took the rap for both, telling reporters after the game, "I slipped on the first one, and the second one Tom threw the ball where I was supposed to be and I wasn't exactly where I was supposed to be. There are no excuses. It's just something where I have to learn the way Tom plays and understand the way this offense is supposed to be run." Congratulations, Donte', you just earned yourself another chance. Brady, the ultimate leader, never publicly will blast a receiver for missing an assignment, but privately he hates it more than I hate mayonnaise.
• Aaron Rodgers looked sharp in the Packers' 48-13 victory Saturday over the Seahawks, his second consecutive strong preseason effort. And the experience will serve him well when he takes over the Green Bay offense after Brett Favre retires in 2013.
• I know it didn't count, but the Texans' offense looked so much better Saturday (in a victory over the Cardinals) with Matt Schaub at quarterback than it did during the dubious David Carr era. And if you're a Falcons fan, I'm sorry to have added to your misery.
… YOU AIN'T 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• I agree with virtually everyone that Roger Goodell has been a terrific commissioner, and I hope his second year in office is as tremendous as his first year has been. But I could do without his praise of Lions assistant Joe Cullen, he of the naked trip to the drive-thru window last summer. "We're not perfect and individuals make mistakes, and I think he's recognized that and he's turning his life around and I'm frankly proud to see what he's doing," Goodell told reporters while visiting the Lions' facility last Thursday. You mean an authority figure for a multimillion-dollar enterprise no longer cruises around with his Johnson exposed? Yeah, I'm swelling with pride, too.
• Speaking of the Lions, good luck in Canada, former No. 2 overall draft pick Charles Rogers. Wow.
• Byron Leftwich again is the undisputed starter in Jacksonville, but he still is deservedly peeved about the way coach Jack Del Rio handled the quarterback situation last year. In February Del Rio admitted that in '06, "There were some awkward situations … I see that there would've been an ability to handle things differently." Translation: "After I used Leftwich's ankle injury as an excuse to bench him, David Garrard didn't play as well as I thought he would, so now Leftwich is my guy again."
• OK, Al Davis and JaMarcus Russell, this is getting ridiculous: Brady Quinn already has turned the jeers to cheers in Cleveland, and you guys still can't agree on a contract? It's only been four months, and it's becoming tiresome.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1) Quantum physics.
2) How someone slipped peyote into the coffee pot in the Dolphins' war room last April (No. 9 overall Ted Ginn Jr. recently was demoted behind two other kickoff-return specialists and isn't in the wideout rotation).
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
So the 49ers are going to honor Bill Walsh by wearing their cherry-red jerseys for two games this season, and that's lovely. But why did the franchise dishonor Walsh by ditching them in the first place? As Walsh once told me, "They took the best, most beautiful jerseys in sports and discarded them. It's just a shame."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Hi Michael, I have been reading your articles for awhile and I tend to agree with a lot of what you say. So the nice Yahoo readers – we're out here. I did want to say I hope (Tony) Romo stays with Dallas. Last year was bad and most Dallas fans hated him for losing the game. Hopefully this year he won't be so caught up with Carrie Underwood, and he can concentrate on the task at hand."
Thanks, Brandy. I like to think that the truly great quarterbacks (see: Brady, Tom) can concentrate on a hot celebrity girlfriend and winning Super Bowls, but that's just me.
"I think reading the angry responses you get is just as entertaining as the stories you write :D Anyway, here's my question: Tony Romo didn't get drafted and looked pretty impressive last year. Tom Brady fell far behind the likes of Giovanni Carmazzi in his draft. Do you have a strong feeling about any backups around the league now that might emerge as a superstar in a few years?"
Joe Di Cicco
That's a great question, and it forced me to spend a lot longer on this reply than I normally would have. I like Ryan Fitzpatrick in St. Louis, even if the two quarterbacks ahead of him, Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte, have convinced me he played the trombone in the Harvard band. Quinn Gray in Jacksonville and Cleo Lemon in Miami are both intriguing small-college guys who have a lot of potential. Brady's exceptionally talented backup in New England, Matt Cassel, would be a great story if he ever hit it big – he didn't even start in college. And the backup who I think could have the biggest upside of all is Seneca Wallace, who kept the Seahawks' offense humming when Matt Hasselbeck went down in the middle of last season. In the meantime, he's a hell of a backup receiver, too.
"Bobble Boy Tony Romo's replay would make an excellent 'want to get away' commercial for Southwest Airlines!"
Frederick A. Martinez
Yep. And so would Michael Vick on the courthouse steps.
"I loved reading the emails to you, and I especially enjoyed your pithy comments. 'Your' hilarious! Glad you're on board at Yahoo!"
I appreciate it because I am really, really glad to be here.
"Yoo got too luv peeple whoo bad mouth yoo wile knot haveing a comand off the langage."
"Honestly I read you column because I was bored at work on a Friday afternoon trying to pass the minutes before freedom, and just let me tell you … mission accomplished! 'Well, as Fate would have it … apparently I am.' Touché … this is too funny, I was laughing so hard I swallowed my water wrong, laughed some more, looked at the clock and it was time to go … thanks!"
Outstanding imagery. I just wish you had it on video so we could post it here.
"You have not been informed so I'll let you off easy and inform you myself. Spelling smack is WEAK!!!! Some of the people typing to you dont have the same amount of time to spend at the computer as you do so they type fast and don't care about spelling. Personally, when I type to friends or people like you … I dont care how words are spelled. If it's close enough you get the point right? Until next time … 2 fingaz"
Well, Terence, here's the deal: I regret to inform you that we do care about spelling (and, for that matter, proper use of contractions) here at Trippin' On E. You fast-typing critics out there should, too: If you're going to call someone an idiot because you disagree with his opinion, it's a common courtesy. Until next time … 3 toez
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/PHONE MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Damn, you know you're long-winded when the interviewer is trying to get your ass off the phone."
– Kenny Chesney, 45 minutes into our raucous phone conversation Friday, after I asked him to hand his cell back to Sean Payton.