On the opening day of football practice, Boys' Latin coach Ritchie Schell was all over the field. Following his players as they rotated from one drill to another before breaking up into position groups, the coach literally had his hands full. As he made his rounds on this hot August day, Schell, 44, clearly was regretting the absence of a vital member of any successful football team.
"I knew I should've hired a water boy," Schell said to no one in particular as he moved from station to station with a crate full of water bottles.
With the temperature hovering around the mid-90s all afternoon, Schell spent nearly as much time keeping his players hydrated as he did instructing them. Surely he was not alone in his efforts.
As the Baltimore region continues to grapple with August heat and humidity, and with football practices either in full swing or about to begin - state public schools begin practice today - the focus for coaches at all levels is squarely on keeping the players safe.
From pee wee leagues to the pros, the goal is to be proactive in dealing with the heat, something medical experts say can be accomplished through awareness and communication.
"The biggest thing is prevention and talking about it," said Dr. Yvette Rooks, team physician for the University of Maryland. "I think we tend to talk about it after something happens."
Rooks said one key to prevention is for coaches to know symptoms of heat-related problems. Those include sweating excessively or not sweating at all, dizziness, upset stomach and excessive thirst.
"They should be hydrating all day long," Rooks said.
According to an annual survey of football injuries conducted by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, which contains data from every level of football played in the United States, there were five heat-related fatalities last year and 31 since 1995.
Dr. Fred Mueller, director of the center that conducted the study, stressed that in addition to keeping athletes hydrated, coaches must give players time to get used to being out in the heat.
"It's important for the coach to acclimate the kids," said Mueller, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina. "You don't know what the kid's been doing all summer - if he's been in an air-conditioned room or up in the mountains where it's cool. You have to get them used to the heat before you start going full speed."
If anything has changed since 2001, when NFL Pro Bowl lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke during the Minnesota Vikings' training camp, it is awareness. Coaches are much more cognizant of the heat index and are adjusting their schedules accordingly. The Maryland football team recently moved two practices to later in the evening and even the notoriously detail-oriented Brian Billick canceled a Ravens practice and moved two others indoors.
"You have to be very aware of why you are going to put guys on the field and put them at risk," Billick said.
That kind of awareness has also reached the youth level. Officials with the Harford/Baltimore County Youth Football League made several adjustments to their practice schedules, canceling some sessions and reducing or eliminating contact in others.
According to league president Craig White, the Bel Air chapter took matters a step further and held a mandatory parents meeting recently to discuss the heat. White said more than 500 parents attended the seminar and were instructed on how they can work together with coaches to keep their children safe.
"We go over all of the proper ways to keep kids hydrated," said White, whose league also held a seminar for parents about the benefits and risks of energy drinks and other supplements as they relate to the heat. "It's all about the kids."
At a recent North Harford practice for the 7-9 age group, the youngsters gradually went through blocking and tackling drills at North Harford Elementary while their coaches instructed them and parents watched from the sidelines.
Flanked by a wall of large trees, and with cows grazing in pastures nearby, the kids were enjoying a respite from the heat, courtesy of the rain that swept through the area earlier that evening. Despite the cooler temperatures, players took three breaks in a little more than an hour. This type of awareness is one reason why many parents watching weren't overly concerned about the recent heat wave.
"They do a good job here," said Kerri Johnson of Pylesville, mother of 8-year-old Ethan. "If the temperature gets to a certain point, the league won't let them practice."
With temperatures expected to dip into the 80s next week, canceling sessions shouldn't be an issue. But the focus on safety is all the same.
"We have an open line of communication," said Schell, referring to his Boys' Latin players. "I think all high school coaches do. You just don't want to put yourself in a situation where one of our kids is going to get hurt because of the heat."
Playing it cool
Dr. Yvette Rooks, team physician for the University of Maryland, has five tips to prevent heat-related illness:
Drink plenty of water. Even if you don't feel thirsty, it is important to stay hydrated.
Practice during cooler parts of the day. Shift workouts to earlier in the morning or later in the evening.
Take frequent breaks during practice. Find some shady areas to rest in if possible.
Remove your helmet when not practicing. This reduces the amount of heat going to your head.
Communicate. Tell your coach if you are feeling faint, dizzy or tired.