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December 06, 2001

Tragedy raises questions
By Dan Patrick

We call Korey Stringer's death a tragedy. And indeed it is. A death is a tragedy when it could have been prevented. In Stringer's case, I believe something could have been done.

Korey Stringer
Korey Stringer tries to catch his breath during Monday afternoon's practice at Vikings training camp.
More than a day after the fact, the question "Why?" doesn't go away. Stringer came into Vikings' camp 30 pounds less than the year before. He got sick on Monday and couldn't complete practice. On Tuesday, he reportedly threw up three times. On the hottest day of the year, did Stringer suffer an ordinary reaction? Was it typical for a heavier man carrying less weight or for an All-Pro athlete? These are medical questions that may go unanswered.

Common sense indicated Stringer was susceptible to the reaction he had -- not to dying, but to heat stroke or heat exhaustion or an injury. He was prone to something that could develop into a serious situation.

When a player is carted off the field after a knee injury, a concussion and even heat exhaustion, other players know he will come back eventually because we have the finest medical facilities and doctors. They don't think they may never see him again.

I interviewed former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, who endured the "10 days of hell" training camp with Bear Bryant's 1954 Texas A&M team, as chronicled in Jim Dent's book, "The Junction Boys." The players trained in dangerous conditions -- in extreme heat, in full pads, in the middle of nowhere, where water was their carrot. The players didn't get water; they earned it. Players were throwing up all over the place.

The book talks about how the concentration camp-like experience bonded them. More than 110 players showed up for Bryant's camp in September 1954, and only 35 remained with the team, including Stallings. One Sunday, Bryant said, "Does anybody want to go to church?" Every player raised his hand, figuring they were getting out of practice. But Bryant said, "As soon as we get through with practice, you guys can go to church." It was the macho way; Bryant figured those who quit during camp would quit during the game.

You can't help but think Dent's book was fictional. Then one realizes Bryant was real, and so were all the players. It was reality. Although the book may include some hyperbole, even reducing the stories by half wouldn't soften the barbaric conditions they endured. Bryant's method was acceptable at the time, and he is viewed as a legendary, disciplinary figure. The Aggies went undefeated two years later, and Stallings said the experience defined him as a person, a player and eventually a head coach.

But "The Junction Boys" story occurred 47 years ago. One could understand if an A&M player died during Bryant's training camp. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, football players were treated equally. Or, as former Green Bay Packers have said, "Vince Lombardi treated us all the same -- like dogs."

Today's players can no longer be treated equally because they are investments. Randy Moss should be treated differently than a free-agent receiver. The same goes for Stringer. He was a person first and foremost, but he was also an investment and should have been treated differently than a free-agent lineman.

Both Stallings and Hall of Fame lineman Dan Dierdorf said the difference between today's players and those who played 30 years ago is that today's players take care of themselves year-round and show up at training camp in shape. In the past, players would wait until training camp to get in shape. While yesterday's players had offseason jobs, football is now a full-time job.

So it would make more sense if a death like Stringer's occurred years ago. But a University of Florida freshman also died last week from heat stroke. An explanation is needed to prevent another death. One can't just say, "This was a rare occurrence."

Certain sports hold fatal risks. But Stringer was only practicing. It was just a workout.
NFL linemen are heavier than ever before. Dierdorf said he played at 285 pounds and was one of the heaviest players in the league. According to ESPN's Mike Golic, Colts GM Bill Polian said he doesn't even look at offensive linemen who weigh less than 300 pounds. The heavier you are, the more heat you attain. So it should send up a red flag -- to the player and the people around him -- when a 335-pound lineman who is concerned about his weight is sweating through unbearable heat and getting sick.

Unfortunately, it takes a death for reality and awareness to sink in. After Dale Earnhardt died, people said drivers should wear special devices to protect themselves in a crash. But drivers still resisted, saying the HANS device is uncomfortable. No one should allow Earnhardt or Stringer to die in vain.

Certain sports hold fatal risks. An auto racer could die on the race track. A rodeo cowboy could die if he's thrown violently from a bucking bronco. A boxer can be knocked unconscious and die.

Dierdorf watched his ex-teammate, J.V. Cain, die of congenital heart failure during training camp in 1979. Lions receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed and died of a heart attack during a game in 1972, but deaths aren't supposed to occur in football. Players understand that injuries are part of the sport. Johnny Unitas has lost the use of his right hand. Hall of Fame center Jim Otto has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. As former NFL linebacker Chris Spielman said, players know when they sign up to play football they will leave body parts on the field.

But Stringer was only practicing. It was just a workout. He wasn't preparing for the Super Bowl. Unless it was a medical fluke, dying from heat stroke in training camp wasn't part of the deal.

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NFL Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf offers his view on the untimely passing of Korey Stringer.
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Former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings is a veteran of some of the roughest training camps when he played for Paul "Bear" Bryant.
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