July was the hottest month on record for most of the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Almost 9,000 daily records were broken or tied last month, including 2,755 highest maximum temperatures and 6,171 highest minimum temperatures. NOAA noted that these numbers could soon be even higher because July’s records are still coming into the National Climatic Data Center from across the U.S.
NOAA currently has excessive heat watches and warnings in effect for parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, and heat advisories in parts of the southern Plains, Gulf Coast states, and the Southeast. They expect high temperatures, combined with high humidity levels, to create heat index levels between 105 to 115 degrees during the afternoon hours.
For many American kids heading back to school, air conditioned classrooms will be a relief from the sweltering heat, but outside of the chilled classrooms, student football players and athletes are beginning to practice for their upcoming seasons in extreme and dangerous temperatures. Over the past few weeks, three 16-year-old high school football players have died after football practices in the intense July heat. Isaiah Laurencin, an offensive lineman with Miramar High School in Broward County, Florida, died July 26. DJ Searcy and Forest Jones, both from Georgia, died last week. Plano, Texas football coach Wade McLain collapsed and died after his school’s first football practice last Monday afternoon. Monday was the 31st consecutive day where temperatures in Plano were over 100 degrees.
Sadly, the recent deaths won’t be the last, said Tampa, FL’s Hillsborough High School athletic trainer Raena Steffen. “We can assist in trying to reduce the number of deaths with education and with letting our coaches know the signs and symptoms and letting the parents know the signs and symptoms,” she said. “But unfortunately with the climate that we have here in the state of Florida, we’re going to be at a higher risk because of the high temperatures and the high humidity.”
Eric Coris, the head medical physician for the University of South Florida’s athletic department, recommends football players stick to a practice attire of shorts, T-shirts and helmets and keep off the plastic pads and equipment that trap heat. Teams are not permitted to strap on pads until Thursday, Aug. 11, according to Florida High School Athletic Association rules.
“Coaches have to use good judgment and common sense,” said Lanness Robinson, the athletic director for the Hillsborough County, Florida school district.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that heat illness among high school athletes, especially football players, occurs most frequently in August.
School districts are recommending coaches conduct practices only during the coolest times of the day, which could mean more student athletes having to wake early to get a practice in before the bell rings and the temperature rises. But Dr. Andrew Grundstein, a professor at the University of Georgia who has analyzed every heat-related high school football player’s death since 1980, said that isn’t enough. “Almost 60% of these deaths came in the morning,” Grundstein said. “The mornings may be cooler, but high humidity levels may make conditions very oppressive and very stressful.”
Grundstein said he thinks it is better to hold practices at cooler times of the day but that coaches can’t assume they can then go full throttle.
“A lot of times they just (think that) because it’s cooler, it’s safer, and they really need to keep an eye on what that overall environmental risk is, in assessing the intensity level, the practice, what kind of gear they’re wearing, the number of breaks they take,” Grundstein said. “Bottom line, I just think they need to keep their guard up.”
Oklahoma high school football coach Steve Barrett has been telling his team to start prepping for the heat at home. “Many times players wait too long and try to hydrate right before practice. This will help, but players need to drink fluids two to three hours before. Parents can also help by making sure players get adequate rest.”