When water was for Sissies By Billy Dale
Joe Good is a fictional football player trying out for the Core Heat AA High School football team in a West Texas town in 1961. It is a time when Coaches believed that drinking water during football practice was for sissies.
During the first 4 minutes of conditioning drill on the first day of practice on a hot humid day in late August 1961 Joe Good would become another statistic of the "water is for sissies" conviction. Joe died when his core temperature reached 108 degrees and all his organs shut down.
In 1961 the medical professionals were still researching the significance of dehydration in the death spiral. Joe Good died because dehydration made his blood thicker which increased his heart rate and decreased the amount of blood his heart could pump with each beat. To exacerbate Joe's problem dehydration made it harder for his fat to get into his muscles to be used for fuel. Instead his muscles burn the limited sugars (glycogen) already there.
Since the full dynamics of the role dehydration playsed in heat stroke was unknown to the Coaches at "Core Heat High School " , they continued to use proven techniques learned from past generations of Coaches to “motivate” their athletes. Screaming, cajoling, and insulting remarks were some of the tools used, and it was during conditioning drills that all these "motivational" techniques came into play.
Conditioning drills allowed Coaches insight into the “character” of their athletes. It was a time to separate the “sissies” from the winners. All the players knew not to ask for water during work-out because it was tantamount to admitting to a character flaw and a weak spirit. Only sissies asked for water was considered a truism and remained unchallenged until 1962.
On the day of Joe’s death his brain sent him a message. It told him to slow down because he was fatigued and his core temperature was rising. Joe did exactly what his mind said, but the Coach interpreted Joe’s slower pace as laziness and gave Joe a symbolic “kick in the butt" using cajoling and derogatory remarks as the "motivational" techniques of choice.
This was a flawed technique for Joe's particular personality traits. Joe was a proud individual who wanted to make the team at all cost so the verbal kicks were not effective. His Coaches comments only served to embarrass him in front of his peers. According to Coach Darrell Royal “ When you take pride away from a player, you've destroyed the best tool you've got. If you hurt him, you've hurt the team."
Joe's pride was hurt, but his motivation to make the team remained intact. Joe was a normal 17 year old boy trying to find his way in life. He wanted recognition and a sense of belonging. Football offered him that chance. He wanted the adoration of all the pretty girls , attention at parties, respect from peers, and recognition from the residence of his hometown. He had no desire to play beyond his high school years, and a college education was not in his future. Making the team would be a major benchmark in his life. Joe was willing to use samurai warrior techniques to make the the team so he pushed himself harder during the conditioning drills. Joe's decision to push harder when his mind said slow down was the final bad decision in a perfect storm of events that took his life .
Joe's positive attributes- a hard working attitude, determination to succeed , and his never quit mentality- combined with a hot humid day , a coach who pushed too hard, and his refusal to listen to his body caused his death. If only one of these factors had not been present Joe would still be alive.
Joe’s death was only covered locally. A reflection of the national mindset of the media and general populous in the 60’s. A death of an athlete at practice was not worthy of national news. Everyone of course was sad at Joe's passing, but fans who loved football understood that “inherent uncontrollable risks” are part of the game and Joe knew that risk. One year later two events will shock the sports world. All would learn that dying from dehydration is a controllable and preventable death.
One year after fictional Joe Good passed away two real heat related deaths in the SWC would expose the belief that water is for sissies as a fraud. It would forever change the dynamics of hydration at practice.
Most coaches at the University level prior to 1962 followed the “truism” that water is for sissies. Royal’s football program adhered to this belief. Coach Royal wanted tough players so he had tough workouts with lots of conditioning. I know because I played for him in the late 60’s on two national championship teams. Royal said "Football is a physical contact, spartan game. You don't go out there for any taffy-pull......" Under Royal’s regime only the strongest survived.
Pat Culpepper’s played ball for the Horns in the early 60’s and he wrote an Orange Blood thread about what happened in 1962 that finally exposed “water is for sissies” as an imposter.
He says, “We (Longhorns) had come through two weeks of full pad practices in the Austin heat and humidity. There were water breaks for the first time because of heat problems around the Southwest Conference. In fact, we had five players taken to Breckenridge Hospital with heat dehydration. Only one never made it back - Reggie Grob from Houston. He died along with the senior captain from SMU, Mike Kelsey. Doctors thought the new plastic shoulder pads had something to do with the heat problems. Most of us wore expensive leather shoulder pads that actually got wet with our sweat which let some air through the jerseys while the plastic pads encased the player and did not allow any air. Before those youngsters died we never got water breaks, but our head coach Darrell Royal, as other coaches learned a tragic lesson. We went to Reggie's memorial service in Houston as a team in two buses on Monday of our first game.
Pat is referring to the deaths of Mike Kelsey, the starting center for SMU and Reggie Grob from Texas who had heat stroke on the same day as Mike but who survived for 17 days before succumbing to liver and kidney failure. Reggie was 19 years old. At the time of Reggie’s passing only salt tablets were offered to reduce dehydration during practice.
According to Jones Ramsey (Sports Information Director) Coach Royal was devastated by Reggie’s death and “collapses and cries” in the huge arms of Defensive Line Coach Charley Shria.
Bill Little said about Reggie " In a very real sense, his death meant that thousands and thousands have lived. Out of tragedy, he gave us all a gift. And that's why he's a legend".
The death of Reggie and Mike was a wake up call. Trainers and doctors, led by the American Medical Association, began immediate research on the effects of heat on the human body. Within a year, Universities mandated more liquids be served to athletes during work-out and games.
At the high school level changes in many states moved at a much slower rate than others. For those who moved quickly routines were strictly governed by schools and State athletic associations and individual school districts mandating limited practices during certain times of day, and practice days without full pads so that athletes could acclimate to the weather. For those states who are moved slowly 58 years after Reggie Grob's death one state representative is still struggling to pass a bill through the General Assembly that would require head coaches and assistant coaches of interscholastic or intramural sports to complete an education course on heat-related medical issues that could arise from a student athlete's training. In Kentucky in 2009 a coach faced reckless homicide and wanton-endangerment charges in connection with 15-year-old heat related death. It was alleged that his players were in full gear, and several of them were denied water and told to keep running wind sprints -- called "gassers" -- in 94 degree heat, even after vomiting. It was learned that the boy who died was taking amphetamine Adderall for an attention deficit disorder which affects the body's ability to thermal regulate. The coach was acquitted by a jury in two hours, but another lesson was learned at the expense of a young boy. In 2011 two football players and one coach died after practise in scorching temperatures. Stopping heat stroke deaths takes a combination of adequate hydration and coaches that understand the symptoms of heat stroke. Obviously ,some Coaches still have not learned this lesson
Who knew in 1961 that a lack of water in combination with plastic shoulder pads that did not ventilate was a possible cause for the death of Mike and Reggie. Who knew in 2009 that combining lack of water with a prescription amphetamines could precipitate a death.
Education and hydration are the answer to ZERO deaths.
Quite frankly if Joe had played ball in 2018 instead of 1961 he still may have died . At the college level from 2000-2010 deaths due to heat stroke rose for the first time in 40 years- almost to the 1970's level .
At the college level based on an ANNUAL SURVEY OF FOOTBALL INJURY RESEARCH from 1931 - 2014 by Kristen L. Kucera, MSPH, PhD, ATC Director, National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the worst decades for heat stroke were in the 60’s and 70’s.
1960’s- 42 deaths 1970’s – 31 deaths 1980’s – 14 deaths 1990’s – 14 deaths 2000’s - 29 deaths
Some medical professional believe that the reason for the rise in heat related deaths in the 2000’s is due to the size of the high school players, and higher morning temperatures than decades ago. Many of the current high school athletes are enormous, but their weight is more fat than muscle and fat makes it harder for the body to dissipate heat.
It is inexcusable for even one athlete to die from heat stroke in 2018. Shame on any system that knows all the causes of heat stroke, but refuses to follow protocol to prevent it. Until the system becomes more disciplined and educated more preventable deaths of young boys will continue and their families will suffer the consequences. Change the system and protect the boys!
Billy Dale- Proud member of the 1967 football recruiting class.