Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

AMERICUS -- With the latest deaths of Locust Grove's Forest Jones and Fitzgerald's D.J. Searcy and one of the hottest summers in recent history, area coaches are left saddened and concerned.

Football practice with pads began Monday, and the local high schools are doing everything in their control to prevent any heat-related illnesses.

"My heart goes out to the family, it goes out to the community and coaches,'' Americus-Sumter athletic director and football coach Michael Pollock said. "I know Coach (Robby) Pruitt real well, and he probably feels how I feel about it. I'm real sick about everything. You do what you can to prevent stuff like that, and its just unfortunate this happened.''

The Georgia High School Association mandated that all member schools develop their own heat policies after the death of Rockdale County football player Tyler L. Davis after a voluntary workout Aug. 1, 2006.

Schools and counties set a heat index to go by in order to limit practice in harsh conditions. The GISA says when the index reaches 102, athletes must practice in shorts and t-shirts only; when it reaches 110, practice must be indoors or canceled. Dougherty County public schools are not allowed to practice outdoors when the heat index reaches 105.

While all schools having mandated water breaks, Southland football coach Tim Goodin said they also check each player's weight before and after practice. The Raiders have had team camp all week with practices and scrimmages.

They had workouts during the summer from 6 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.

"We did it all summer, and we will do it the first three or four games until it cools off and its not 90 degrees,'' Goodin said. "We basically want them to drink an eight ounce cup of water for every pound you lose. The key to me is knowing the body weight. As long as the body weight is the same, they should be all right."

Goodin continued: "I have had a few kids here lose eight, nine, 10 pounds in one practice. That's a lot of water if you don't put it back in them. They'd be subject to have some trouble.''

At Monroe, coach Charles Truitt said he and his coaches monitor all their players.

"We have scheduled water breaks,'' Truitt said. "But all of the coaches know that if anyone wants water they get a break for water.

"As a coach you do everything you can,'' he said. "I never want to jeopardize anyone's health. Practice is X's and O's but you want to do all you can do to make sure the young athletes get plenty of water.

"You're afraid something might happen, and you're walking around the field at practice every day making sure everyone is OK,'' Truitt added. "It's the scariest part right now because we're in the heat of August. You just want to protect your athletes.''

At Westover, coach Octavia Jones held practice in the gym on Wednesday.

"We do everything we can and take extra precautions to make sure we are safe,'' said Jones, who grew up in Albany and played at Monroe and Albany State.

"(The heat) is something we're accustomed to,'' he said. "My coaches I played for made sure we had plenty of water and took precautions, and we do the same. You don't ever want to put the kids at jeopardy.''

Albany High coach Felton Williams canceled practice for the Indians, who usually practice later in the day because of the heat.

In Americus, Pollock took his team off the practice field Wednesday when the heat index reached 120 degrees. He also gave each player a handout on preventive measures, signs and symptoms of what the heat can pose.

At Marion County, Gatorade at lunch is available to any athlete or band member who will have to be in the heat after school.

Football coach Mike Swaney said water is available throughout practice, and even when lifting weights, players are mandated to drink water in between sets. The coaching staff also checks with each player after practice.

"At the end of practice when we come back in, I make the coaches go around and talk to every one of their players. They look them in the eye and make sure everything is all right,'' he said.

The Americus-Sumter Panthers participated in several 7-on-7 passing leagues this summer in the morning time. They had workouts from 8 to 11 a.m., and Pollock said his staff worked on getting the players acclimated to the heat all summer.

"If you let the kids stay home in the air conditioning and let them play video games and watch TV (and) if they don't do anything all summer they will be in a situation where they'd be in a state of shock to come out in this kind of heat,'' he said.

Pollock also is encouraging the parents to get involved to help insure the players are drinking enough fluids and eating right at home.

The GHSA may develop a stricter and more uniform heat policy in the near future. University of Georgia researchers are in the final stages of a three-year study on heat risks associated with high school athletics.

"They've got 30 high schools around the state with state-of-the-art equipment, and they have trainers who are taking readings every 15 minutes, starting before practice until after practice, and then they keep up with any heat-related issues that come up during practice,'' said GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin. "When that study is over, we'll have hard and fast data that will maybe cause us to change our policy.''

Pollock and Swaney had ideas of how more preventive measures could be taken. Pollock said schools should have more than 18 days in pads before their first scrimmage or game, and Swaney said waiting until after Labor Day to start school would help.

"Before Aug. 1, we can't require a kid to come to practice,'' said Pollock. "You can't get ready in 18 days to play this game, and that's not talking about offense, defense or special teams plays. That's getting your body physically ready to play this game. I think the state and GHSA should take a long, hard look at the two instances that have come up. These are some serious things that need to be looked at. I believe you need five to six weeks of proper preparation to get the kids ready to play.''

Said Swaney: "It used to be where students didn't start back until the Tuesday after Labor Day. What we did is we practiced in the late afternoons. We started practice in late July and would go from about 6 to 8:30 or 9 at night. By the time we got to school, we had them used to the heat. Back then kids were working. It's boiling at 3:30, and it's not feasible to stay here until 6:30 and practice.''

Swearngin said these set of circumstances are tragic and sad.

"When we try to find a solution to a problem like this, we get a little confused or we don't know exactly what to do,'' he said. "There so many different factors when dealing with this type of situation. There are thousands of kids under the same conditions and nothing happens to them.

"It's tragic and bad, but we really can't take strong measures when it doesn't affect everybody,'' he added. "So many times when a tragedy like this occurs, so many people want an immediate stop to all activities. And what keeps us from doing that is so many kids under the very same conditions have no negative effects. We're going to find out as much information [about the two situations] as we can and go from there.''


Herald prep sports writer Mike Phillips contributed to this report