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Local football coaches prepared for heat illness

By MICHAEL LEONARD Sports Editor Published: June 28, 2017 12:00 AM
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The local football community was dealt a stunning blow with the death of Kent State University football player Tyler Heintz June 13.

Heintz, who had just recently graduated from Kenton High School, died due to hyperthermia -- a dangerously high body temperature -- according to a preliminary autopsy report from the Portage County coroner's office.

Local high school football coaches were unanimous in calling Heintz' death a tragedy.

"It causes you to pause a bit and make sure that it's safety first with your kids," said Stow-Munroe Falls coach Mark Nori. "That's always the key. With all the talk about concussions, sometimes this (heat issues) gets pushed to the back burner. It's a reality check for all of us."

"We've had several of our kids go to Kent State," said Aurora coach Bob Mihalik. "I know (KSU) coach (Paul) Haynes and his staff take care of his kids. You've just got to be careful. You do everything you can as a coach to protect your kids. Unfortunately, this tragedy makes you reflect."

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"Our whole program's hearts go out to him," said Hudson coach Jeff Gough. "It's horrible when something like this happens. I couldn't imagine what their family is going through. I think we preach to our players how lucky you are to play the game of football each and every day."

Tallmadge coach Alan Vanderink played wide receiver at Kent State. He said he was struck when he heard the news.

"You kind of go back and envision the summer workouts that you went through when you were there," Vanderink said. "I know they were tough. My prayers go out to his family. I'm not as close to the program as a I used to be, but I'll always have ties there."

With summer workouts underway for high school football, all coaches indicated they were on guard to maintain their safety of the players in the heat.

All coaches talked to said they have not had to deal with life-threatening heat illness with any of their players. They also noted the days of pushing players hard in hot conditions without water or rest are long gone.

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"It's not 'Junction Boys' out there anymore," Nori said.

"We don't think any of our players are any tougher if they're able to go through a very hot practice without water," Gough said.

Woodridge coach Jeff Decker said he believes turning away from an over-concentration on practice can help the players.

'"In the end, to have kids with fresh legs for Thursday, Friday or Saturday on game night is key," Decker said. "We recognize that's more important than getting every single second (of practice) in, busting their tail. I don't know if all coaches recognize that."

Decker and other coaches also noted he believes focusing on hydration should be a year-round issue.

"We stress throughout the year the need to be hydrated," Decker said. "Even before practice and during the day. The kids know we take it seriously.

"We know we'll get more out of the kids if their comfortable. We can just have helmets on and no shoulder pads during two-a-days in the heat."

Mihalik notes, while the coaches remain on guard, there's a large element of personal responsibility for players with regard to hydration.

"It's very scary obviously. You just try to keep educating your kids on hydration," Mikhalik said. "I'm 59 years old. we take care of our kids so much better than in years past."

Mihalik said the Ohio High School Athletic Association "really spells it out perfectly" with regard to how to handle heat issues.

Nordonia coach Jeff Fox said he was grateful OHSAA has such a rigorous certification program for first aid and other health issues.

"We, as coaches, have to go through so much certification," Fox said. "Anymore, people are just talking about the concussions. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something like this to make people focus on heat. I'm glad that here in Ohio we have great education and they remind us of this often."

Numerous coaches, including Decker, paid tribute to their trainers for helping them keep their players well-hydrated.

For starters, the OHSAA mandates a five-day acclimation period for two-a-days to allow players to get used to the heat. Also, schools must provide unlimited water and sports drinks during games.

One of the most common ways to avert heat issues mentioned by coaches is always emphasized by the OHSAA: Moving practice times away from the hottest times of the day.

Gough noted that off-season workouts for Hudson usually begin at 6:30 or 7:30 a.m. "to promote good habits." He also said Hudson likes to start in-season practices at 4:30 or 5 p.m. to avoid the heat.

Vanderink notes he conducts Tallmadge's two-a-days during the morning, before the hottest part of the day, and makes sure to have water at every station."

Both Nori and Mihalik say they have had players change out of their pads when the heat index goes too high. Both coaches note their athletic trainers are invaluable in keeping an eye on heat issues.

Nori also noted Stow has added "huge, huge ice tubs" to its locker room and is considering adding large mist fans to sidelines during hot games.

"We have a very supportive booster club and we have very supportive parents," Nori said. "I don't know of anybody who would turn down new equipment."

Vanderink also noted he felt linemen -- like Heintz -- are more susceptible to heat illness.

"It's just harder on the big guys," Vanderink said. "They're expected to do the same amount of running. Maybe that's something we should limit for them.

"It's tough. There's only so much you can do. You do everything you can to make sure they're hydrated."

Nori noted that common sense plays a large part in preventing heat issues -- including coaches maintaining their focus on player safety, instead of practice outcomes.

"I think it's important that we lead on this," Nori said. "We need to not be stubborn about that. It's not the end of the world if you can't practice in full pads."

Email: mleonard@recordpub.com

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