By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
The high school football season began officially Wednesday for several schools that plan to have their players in full pads on Aug. 1, the first day they are permitted to do so under a new policy being implemented by the Georgia High School Association to guard against heat related injuries.
The GHSA’s new Practice Policy for Heat and Humidity was approved by the organization’s executive committee in March. Though two Georgia high school football players died last year during summer workouts – Forest Jones of Locust Grove and DJ Searcy of Fitzgerald, who died while participating at a team camp at a facility in north Florida – the rule was crafted based largely on data collected during a three-year study which concluded at the beginning of this year.
The GHSA commissioned the study, according to executive director Ralph Swearngin, which was conducted by two University of Georgia researchers, Michael Ferrara and Bud Cooper. Members of the GHSA’s football sub-committee traveled to Athens in January to hear a presentation on the results of the study. Douglas Casa, a professor at the University of Connecticut and head of the Korey Stringer Institute, participated in the presentation as well.
“After getting the full results of the study, [the football sub-committee] came up with the new policy that the [executive committee] approved,” Swearngin said.
Some aspects of the new policy are:
No player may practice in full pads until the player has participated in five practices without pads. This is designed to help players get acclimated to the heat.
There are specific activity and rest break guidelines related to various wet bulb globe temperature readings. For example, a reading of over 92 results in outdoor practices being cancelled.
Any school being found in violation of any part of the new policy is subject to a $500 to $1,000 fine.
“We’re asking schools to self report [violations] or asking parents to contact our office,” Swearngin said, speaking to how the new policy will be enforced. “We’re asking coaches to download the new policy and hand it out to students and parents because they need to know.”
Brookwood head coach Mark Crews said, “Any rule that keeps kids safe, we’re all for it.” But he admitted that the new rule cuts into the preparation time of teams like his, whose players are already acclimated to the heat after participating in voluntary workouts three-to-four days a week, all summer. The Broncos are one of several teams that will have their first game on the opening weekend of the season, Aug. 24-25. Brookwood will face Walton, last season’s Class AAAAA runner-up, at 8:30 p.m., Aug. 25 in the Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome.
“With the calendar the way it is, it’s awfully difficult to get in as many [official] practices as you need,” said Crews, who held his team’s first official practice on Wednesday morning, so that the team can be in full pads on Aug. 1. “With school starting on Aug. 6, that gives us Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then school starts that Monday.
“I know the rule is for those schools that won’t do anything over the summer, and the rest of us have to suffer through it,” Crews said. “But it’s for the safety of the kids, and that’s the most important thing.”
On the other hand, Our Lady of Mercy head coach Mike Earwood said he may not start making practice “official” until July 30, three weekdays later than the new rule allows. His players have been involved in voluntary workouts this summer, three days a week.
“I just had a strong feeling that July 25 would be too early,” said Earwood, whose Bobcats will host Mt. Paran School on Aug. 31. “It’s a long season, and the things we would be doing for the five-day [acclimation period] wouldn’t be all that different from what our kids have been doing all summer.”
UGA professor Andrew Grundstein said the new rule puts Georgia at the forefront of being proactive in addressing illnesses and injuries related to the heat. Grundstein authored a national study on heat related deaths by high school football players and was one of the experts who met with GHSA officials back in January.
“This makes Georgia one of the very few states that have a specific [heat] policy in place for its high school players,” said Grundstein, whose study examined deaths suffered between 1994 and 2009. “I think it is wonderful what they have done.”