For area high school coaches, the prospect of losing a player is an unthinkable tragedy.
Unfortunately, the unthinkable did happen at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky.
Max Gilpin, 15, collapsed and died of a heat stroke following a series of wind sprints during practice on Aug. 20 of last year, bringing the affluent Louisville suburb to its knees.
The aftermath of Gilpin’s death has sent shock waves throughout the national coaching community, including North Mississippi.
Jason David Stinson, Pleasure Ridge Park’s first-year head coach, was indicted on reckless homicide charges in January, charges that carry a five-year sentence if Stinson is convicted.
Stinson’s case marks the first time that a coach is being held criminally responsible for the death of a player, meaning that the practices and methods of high school football will be put to the test in a court of law.
Stinson’s indictment hit close to home for many coaches in the NeMiss area, including recently retired Baldwyn coach Jimmy Dillinger.
“I’m surprised that (Stinson) was indicted,” Dillinger said. “I can only guess what’s in his mind right now. He’s probably going back to that day, going over and over what happened. What people need to realize is that he’s a coach who lost a player that day, and that will stay with him for the rest of his life.”
In their shoes
Stinson’s indictment could effectively put football on trial, as a Hampton County Commonwealth jury in Kentucky will be asked to decide if Stinson put the well-being of his team ahead of that of Gilpin.
For Shannon’s Chad Cook, the thought that a fellow head coach would knowingly put a player in harm’s way is hard to fathom.
“I don’t know of any coach in this business who doesn’t care for his players like they are family,” Cook said. “That’s the main reason we are in coaching. I know, personally, I try to treat every player like he’s my own kid, so to have something like that happen. … It would just be a total shock.
“When I saw the story on the news, I immediately thought of my players. I can’t imagine having to endure a tragedy like this. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine what that family has gone through.”
When West Point head coach Chris Chambless heard of Stinson’s indictment, his reaction was similar.
“Like everybody else, I was stunned. I’ve never heard of a coach being charged for wrongdoing in a case like this,” Chambless said. “It really makes you think twice about everything you do as a coach. Even if you have the best of intentions, something could go wrong. I just feel bad for everyone involved.”
In more than 30 years of coaching, the unthinkable never happened to Dillinger. For that, the veteran coach counts himself lucky.
“Every August, when we get out in that heat and humidity, it crosses your mind,” Dillinger said. “I guess we’ve been blessed that it’s never happened to us because it’s such a tragedy all the way around. I just feel for the family that has had to go through this.”
Gilpin collapsed around 6 p.m. on a day that the heat index in Louisville reached 94 degrees, causing critics to ask a simple question: How hot is too hot?
For area coaches, that’s a question they face every August as they take the field under the conditions of a brutal Mississippi summer.
“Every time we hit the field in the summer, the heat is a concern,” said Chambless, who’s entering his fourth season in charge of the Green Wave. “We want to push our kids to get them ready for the season, but the heat is something you have to respect, especially for those first few practices.”
Deaths resulting from football practice are relatively rare, but not unheard of. Thirty-nine players died from heat-related injuries between 1995 and 2008, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
For Cook, getting the best out of a player is a huge responsibility, one that requires a serious balancing act in the dog days of summer.
“The key in the summer is to gradually work the kids back in, because after a few months of being inside and away from the field, that heat can be a shock,” Cook said. “For me, I think I owe it to the kid to push him to be the best player and person he could possibly be, but as a coach, you have to know their limits.”
However the Stinson case plays out, the effects could have far-reaching implications throughout the world of high school athletics.
Already, pressure from previous cases has forced reform in the way coaches and players approach conditioning, particularly in football.
“It has changed over the years,” Dillinger said. “You can’t really go as hard as we used to go, but there’s still ways to get the best out of kids.”
Putting safety first
While times have changed, Walt Wilkins, a certified trainer at North Mississippi Medical Center, believes coaches in this area are ahead of the curve in their care for players.
“I feel like the coaches that we deal with do a great job of putting their players first,” Wilkins said. “Coaches are educated and they take the heat seriously. Every coach I’ve dealt with has allowed us to make suggestions, and they’ve listened to us when we’ve offered advice.”
Thus far, the Mississippi High School Activities Association has been proactive in its care for athletes, instituting rigid guidelines and even mandating later practices during the last two football seasons.
“I think the MHSAA has done a good job on protecting athletes,” Wilkins said. “They’ve held workshops to raise awareness, and they stress the importance of taking precautions in the heat at all times.”
But sometimes, even that isn’t enough.
“The thing is that coaches can only do so much,” Wilkins said. “Coaches can’t control what kids do when they go home. You remind them as much as you can, and you tell them every single day after practice to go home, drink plenty of water, stay away from soda.
“Players and their families have to listen to these concerns and follow through.”
Coaches across the country will be paying close attention to the Stinson trial, which is set to begin on March 20.
A guilty verdict would set a disturbing precedent for high school coaches.
“It’s scary,” Cook said. “The thing is that this game is supposed to be fun. When something like this happens, it makes you take a long look at things. I’m anxious to see how this plays out.”
Brandon Walker/Daily Journal