Friday, August 06, 2010

SPORTS>>Football taking heat

Leader sportswriter

You know it’s hot when rumors like this start floating around.

It’s been whispered Cabot coach Mike Malham actually cancelled a practice.

“Not a chance,” Malham said, when informed of the rumor he may have called off one of his notoriously demanding afternoon sessions.

Football teams throughout the area, and the state for that matter, have been battling the record high temperatures that seemed to arrive at the onset of fall practice.

The heat, which has approached 110 degrees and is worse with the heat index, has forced coaching staffs to change practice schedules, ramp up the number of water breaks and even, in Jacksonville’s case, construct misting tents to help players avoid overheating.

And while Malham may not be inclined to tinker with his schedule, he is no different than any other coach when it comes to dealing with concerns about the heat and keeping his players out of harm’s way.

“We’ve just got kids that are in shape and we keep them hydrated and we haven’t had a problem,” Malham said. “We’ve got a brain and we’re using our brain.”

All around Arkansas, football coaches, once known perhaps for being stingy with water to motivate players, are shoving fluids at their athletes, tinkering with schedules and even calling off workouts altogether rather than risk losing a young man to heat stroke or dehydration.

Springdale Har-Ber, Cabot’s playoff nemesis the past two seasons, put off the start of on-field workouts for a week in favor of weight training, film study and chalk talk.

At Little Rock Catholic, players are getting their two-a-days done with a pair of morning sessions wrapped around a healthy breakfast provided by booster club mothers and are finished for the day by 11 a.m.

Closer to home, Jacksonville has been trying to get off the field no later than 1 p.m., with only film and chalk talk in the evening, and has put up four, 4x4 misting tents and brought in donated, 100-gallon tubs to immerse a player whose core temperature may have gotten too high.

“The heat has been brutal. It’s been tough,” Jacksonville trainer Jason Cates said. “The kids have done a great job this summer of coming up and being involved in our summer workout programs and conditioning programs but even the heat, just back-to-back-to-back-to-back days, it compounds on them. The effect kind of builds up on them.”

Versions of Jacksonville’s efforts are seen elsewhere.

From first-year North Pulaski coach Terrod Hatcher to veterans like Malham, coaches are calling for more frequent breaks, getting their players out of the sun, making water constantly available and forcing water on them at mandatory intervals.

Ice-water or ammonia-water towels have proliferated on the sidelines, and coaches are not only monitoring their players more closely during workouts, they are, in effect following them home.

Coaches now insist their players eat right in the evening, away from staff supervision, and continue to get their fluids. Many schools now weigh their players before and after practice, and they are not allowed back on the field unless they make their weight the next day.

“We’re giving them a 30-minute break,” Lonoke coach Doug Bost said, “giving them all water and Gatorade, letting them eat candy bars, and we encourage apples, bananas, anything that will help them refuel, and telling them to stay away from Cokes and tea when they go home at night.”

Beebe coach John Shannon pointed out that football is almost a year-round sport now, with offseason conditioning, weight training, spring practice and summer 7-on-7, and that helps in August, he said.

But despite the training and all the precautions, the heat has inevitably taken a toll.
At Searcy, senior fullback/linebacker Charlie Birmingham became overheated and cramped up after practice Wednesday and had to be treated with intravenous fluids and was taken to the White County Medical Center emergency room.

Coach Tim Harper said Birmingham had gone swimming Tuesday and did not sufficiently rehydrate. Harper had Birmingham watching Thursday’s practice from the shade and was holding him out until Monday.

Cates said a few Jacksonville players had suffered cramps and nausea and were immediately treated, and any players losing more than 5 percent of their body weight without replenishing were not being allowed back on the field until they did.

“At the first sign of trouble we’re getting them out as quick as we can,” Cates said.

Cates said players this year seem to be experiencing holdover problems from the previous day. For example, Jacksonville had four players with heat-related issues Monday, but they came back at the proper weight on Tuesday, then six players struggled Wednesday and were fine on Thursday.

The coaches, and trainers like Cates, agree the most important thing anyone can do is keep a close watch on the players.

A hand on the back of the neck, no matter what time of day the team is practicing, may be the best medicine.

“If they’re not sweating, dry and clammy they’re not doing real good,” Malham said. “So it’s not hard to tell if you keep an eye on them.”

— Leader sportswriter Jason King contributed to this report.