BY JOE B. COATES
Area school sporting events last week included varsity and junior varsity softball and football. Games were played on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Those three days were the most miserable when the combination of high heat and humidity are factored in. Add in Sunday, and the four day stretch was the hottest of the summer and most certainly of the year.
Just a few days before we were enjoying lower temperatures with more reasonable levels of humidity. Football jamborees and softball games were being held. Many commented that fall was beginning to take hold here in southwest Mississippi. Player safety in regards to hydration was almost an after-thought.
Then, lo and behold, summer returned with a vengeance, and football kicked off last Friday night in some of the most extreme conditions we’ve seen in a long while. I officiated a game in McComb in which my fellow crew members and I were drenched with sweat by the time we walked onto the field to assume authority of the contest about 50 minutes before kickoff.
Players of both teams had begun their warm-ups. They were drenched, too. The sun, the heat, the humidity and the misery had us in their collective sticky grip, and we could not turn back. Unlike the Lightning rule, we have no recourse for extreme heat conditions other than heat time outs. And, we called plenty of them.
By now you’ve heard the tragic story of Walker Wilbanks, a junior defensive lineman from Jackson Prep, who on Monday lost his battle with a heat-related illness he suffered on Friday night during a game with Oxford High School. His doctor said that Walker, his parents and his coaches took all the right precautions prior to and during the game and that this was a fluke or freak case of sudden fatal illness brought on by the heat. His death has rekindled an issue that has been around for at least the last decade: the timing of the start of football season.
Many argue that football, which is perhaps the most rigorous and physically demanding fall sport in all of the country, should begin no earlier than after Labor Day to avoid much of the heat of late summer. Others say that other sports, such as fastpitch softball, are well underway in mid-August and that football coaches and players are as responsible for adapting themselves to the heat as participants in those other sports. The arguments for both sides are valid and important.
The National Federation of High Schools has laid out guidelines to deal with the heat in nearly all of its rule and case books. NFHS even offers a free Heat Illness Prevention course at nfhslearn.org. I suggest that all players, parents and coaches complete the course, which takes about a half hour, no matter which sport or sports the child participates in or when the season for each starts. Arm yourself with knowledge.
The sudden and unexpected end to Walker’s life is a shock to anyone who has a child or children in school who participate in school activities. Perhaps this heartbreaking tragedy will prompt a more active discussion among high school associations in the state regarding the exigency of high heat and humidity on players, coaches, officials and parents. One young life lost to heat-related illness suffered during a football game – and I know Walker’s wasn’t the first – is just too many.