Mesa district athletic director Steve Hogen graduated high school in 1977, and his football experience surely mirrored many others from that time period.
Back then, “old-school” coaches dangled hydration over their players’ heads, more interested in using it as motivation than preservation. The ability to practice through extreme heat was lauded and breaks frowned upon.
“I remember we didn’t get water,” Hogen said. “We’d be lucky to get ice. We never took our helmets off. If you even looked at the shade you would probably have to start running.”
Although standing up to the elements was once seen as a source of pride, player safety has quickly moved to the forefront. In the vast majority of cases, practicing in extreme heat won’t cause any longterm effects. However, there is always the risk of tragedy, as evident once again two weeks ago when Evan Gaines, a junior defensive lineman at Seventy-First High School in Fayatteville, N.C., died of cardiac arrest. Heat stroke was the suspected culprit.
Even though Arizona is one of the hottest states in the countries, high schools here have done an astoundingly good job of taking precautions to avoid heat-related incidents. The most recent heat-related fatality in Arizona is believed to be in 1988 with the death of Phoenix Shadow Mountain’s Abdul Reed. Corona del Sol sophomore Chris Cochran died during football practice in 1989, although a coroner determined the cause to be an enlarged heart.
On the Mesa Public Schools athletics’ website (mesasports.org), there is a constantly-updated heat index outlining the danger level each day. The calculation adds the temperature and humidity together, with anything from 135 to 145 degrees considered the “danger zone.” Anything above 145 falls in the “critical zone.” When these numbers are hit, coaches are forced to take precautions until the numbers drop to more acceptable levels.
“We have coaches meetings prior to every season and we talk about it,” Hogen said. “We talk about (the importance of) water. If nothing else, (the heat index) gives us a little bit of a guideline. It keeps the awareness there. To me, that’s the big key. The fact that you have to check it plants in your mind you need to be aware of this.”
The Arizona Interscholastic Association passed a bylaw last July called the Heat Acclimatization and Exertional Heat Illness Management policy designed to educate coaches about the best way to avoid heat stroke. It also implemented a transitional period for out-of-state move-ins so they have time to adjust to the excessive heat.
There appears to be several factors why Arizona has done well annually in dealing with the heat:
• Players who grow up here know the importance of hydration, as a dizzy spell or feeling of weakness has most likely been experienced before.
• The comparable lack of humidity to other states makes for less sweating and less loss of much-needed liquids and minerals within the body.
• Coaches standing outside in such extreme temperatures are cognizant of the need for breaks; in areas with a lower base temperature, the importance of rest may not be as noticeable.
Nowadays, high school football programs are more intent than ever on having successful seasons on the scoreboard. Fortunately, however, it’s not coming at the expense of player safety.
The Gilbert football team doesn’t practice until 5:30 at night, and although coach Tim Rutt loathes the long days for everyone involved, he realizes it’s a necessity.
“If you’re an Arizona coach, you’re pretty knowledgeable of weather situations and what to do,” Rutt said. “One of the stipulations I have is that a trainer better be on the field. There’s too much of a risk right now. There’s never water not available. I remember the old school coaches said, ‘You only get water when I tell you to get water.’ The old coaches are probably rolling over in their grave right now, but you just can’t take that chance.”