published Monday, July 30th, 2012

Chattanooga area coaches apply new rules to protect prep football players in summer practices

The clock had just approached 10 a.m. this past Thursday when LaFayette High School football coach Tab Gable wandered over to his trainer and asked for a temperature reading.

The Ramblers were squaring off with host Ringgold in a 7-on-7 passing league competition. No one was keeping score as the players, in helmets and shorts only, sweated under what would later be a mid-90-degree day. Wednesday was one of what the Georgia High School Association terms, "Acclimation Days."

It's a five-day period before the start of actual training camp where teams are allowed to practice two hours a day in shorts and helmets in order to get athletes acclimated to the mid-summer temperatures that await them next week when pads are put on. Gable wasn't worried that it was too hot. The veteran coach wanted to make sure it was hot enough to help his kids get ready.

"You have to take care of the kids, so I think this is a good thing," Gable said. "And what you hope is that everybody is doing the same thing."

The acclimation period is just part of a new GHSA heat policy put in place for the upcoming school year. Two Georgia prep football players died from heat-related issues during summer workouts last year, and according to a study done by the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, at least 20 high school football players have died from heat stroke since 2006.

Among the other highlights of the GHSA policy are mandatory guidelines on when a team may practice outdoors, based on wet bulb globe temperature readings, and the mandatory presence of a "cooling tank," where athletes in danger of overheating can quickly cool down. The tanks can be as simple as a large tub or trough with ice water.

Schools found to be in violation of the GHSA policy can be fined as much as $1,000.

The GHSA, like the majority of states, had previously relied on school districts to set heat policies, but the ruling body commissioned a University of Georgia study three years ago that showed a clear-cut set of rules for the entire state would be wise.

"Anything we can do to help keep our children safe, we're going to do it," GHSA Executive Director Dr. Ralph Swearngin said. "We expect our schools to cooperate fully."

Area coaches have adjusted accordingly this summer and, for most, offer only compliments to the GHSA.

"I think that the GHSA is wise to consider the safety of the athletes," Ringgold coach Robert Akins said. "Us coaches always have been taught to outwork our opponents, but I think what we need to learn is to work smarter and make use of the valuable time we have with better organization of practice."

Added Calhoun coach Hal Lamb, "I think the GHSA has made a stand about keeping players safe, which is our No. 1 priority. Football is an awesome game, and I think sometimes we get caught up in how great the game is. However, we can't lose sight of what's important and that's the kids' safety. I like the changes and it keeps everybody on the same page."

The TSSAA has also instituted a state-wide guideline for its member schools and requires them to have heat index readings at all activities. Like their Georgia counterparts, Chattanooga's coaches say dealing with the heat is a common sense issue.

"Nothing's changed from what we've always done," East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said. "The biggest thing here now is we can practice under lights if we have to, so if it's too hot in the afternoon we go later. We keep water at every station and there's not a time that a kid can't grab a bottle of water and get a drink. We go 15-20 minutes and break for five."

Gatewood does have something he would like see change, a move that would take a good deal of the heat issue away.

"We need to back the season up," he said. "I don't think we should play football in August, period. We should prepare in August, but we shouldn't start before colleges do."

Assistant sports editor Ward Gossett contributed to this article.

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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