TAMPA — From the rim of the big grassy football bowl, two fathers watch the action on this August evening. Each has a 7-year-old son learning to throw and catch. The boys, in padded armor, are being taught by coaches built like double-door refrigerators. The coaches are volunteers, men who don't strip off neckties to coach. Many have physical, outdoor jobs. They sweat all day. They come straight from work. They don't get supper until after 9 for five nights a week.
That's how it has been for 40 years in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. The beneficiaries have been tens of thousands of boys, rich and poor.
But Herman James and Jeff Lawrence, the two dads on the hill, don't like everything they see down there. Rain has soaked the field. The bowl is hot and steamy. On the sidelines are two coolers of ice water. On top of one cooler are five water bottles; on the other are two water bottles. Over the next two hours, 60 boys will share them.
Two years ago, a boy collapsed in the July heat on this field at Nuccio Park near Temple Terrace and died nine days later. About the same time, another boy collapsed on the field at Progress Village in east Tampa and died in the ambulance. Their families are now suing the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, blaming coaches for not making sure the boys drank enough water and for missing symptoms of heat illness until it was too late.
The trials are still months away, but the testimony in depositions is somber and heartbreaking. One doctor says Florida's tradition of summer football is plain crazy. One coach describes a boy he loved like a son, lying in his arms, fighting to live.
The two dads feel bad about the lawsuits. The league, which has a million-dollar insurance policy, isn't the only target. Volunteer coaches, who haven't a million anything, are being sued by one of the families, too.
But the two dads don't think their boys are safe. They don't like the five-minute water breaks, taken every 20 minutes. They watch groups of 20 boys pass the few water bottles from hand to hand, mouth to mouth.
Herman James played for Tampa Bay Youth Football when he was a kid. He remembers they had running water on the field, and he could dunk his head during practice. James has taught his son a simple way to know when he's dehydrated: when the boy's urine turns a darker color. "He says, 'Dad, my pee is yellow. I got to drink some water.' "
During the water breaks, the two fathers wave their 7-year-olds over to the sidelines, apart from 18 other boys.
The dads put bottles of ice water and Gatorade right in their sons' hands. They make sure they drink.
A lethal July
Jamell Johnson collapsed on July 12, 2006. He was 11. Bobby Stephens Jr. collapsed five days later. He was 12.
Jamell had planned to play for the Nuccio Jaguars, but he was not at an official practice, just a voluntary conditioning workout. Jamell had been picked up at home by the coach, Chancey Scott, who called him "Tanker." Scott was the father of Jamell's niece. He treated Jamell like a son.
Scott can't remember how long they practiced. Jamell and the other boys, in T-shirts and helmets, ran laps, climbed stairs, did bunny hops and sprinted up a hillside.
Jamell approached Coach Scott on the field. The boy said, "I ain't feeling well."
Scott said, "Well, go get some water. Chill out."
Jamell drank water and returned.
"By that time, he looked like he was out of it," Scott recalled in deposition testimony. "So I grabbed him. I had to lay him down because he was falling. Really, he fell into my arms."
A paramedic happened to be at the park. While waiting for an ambulance, he and the coaches turned the boy on his side, applied wet towels and ice. Scott said they splashed water on his face but couldn't give him a drink because he was incoherent.
Scott was at Jamell's hospital bedside for nine days, until the boy died of liver and kidney failure, caused by heatstroke.
• • •
Bobby Stephens Jr. collapsed at practice on July 17 while Jamell lay dying in the hospital. He played for the Progress Village Panthers.
His mother, Janat Prasert, had taken him to the evening practice, the first practice of the summer. She noticed he was running last among the boys. Near the end of practice he fell.
His mother ran to his side.
"Are you okay?"
He didn't answer.
She asked him if he'd had any water.
"I drank a few sips."
Bobby complained that his stomach and legs hurt. His eyes bulged.
Someone called 911. There was a delay in the dispatch of an ambulance. Bobby lay on the field for about 20 minutes. A coach gave the boy a few sips of water.
Bobby died on the way to the hospital.
An autopsy revealed a surprise: Bobby's death was attributed to a rare combination of two blood disorders.
The autopsy showed that Bobby had inherited sickle cell trait from his African-American father — a blood disorder that afflicts one of every 12 African-Americans. In any group of 60 black players at a youth football practice, five might have it. It doesn't make them any more prone to heat illness than other kids. But it leaves them vulnerable to sickling — the distortion of oxygen-carrying red blood cells — if they are overcome by heat and exercise.
Bobby also had inherited a common Southeast Asian blood disorder, called hemoglobin E, from his Thai mother. The disorder is usually benign, but it can cause red blood cells to be smaller.
All this has created a conflict between the coaches and the family. The coaches say Bobby's death was tragically unpreventable, a roll of the genetic dice. His family's lawyer says such deaths are being prevented — by Army drill instructors under the rigor of boot camp.
Scott Levinson was grilled to medium-well during deposition questioning by Christopher Ligori, the Tampa attorney for the families of the two dead boys. Levinson testified under oath as league president, and as an 18-year volunteer who has helped train coaches how to recognize and react to heat illness.
Under the grilling, he struggled to remember what he has learned about playing football in the heat. He majored in sports administration at Tulane 20 years ago. He has since attended clinics at the University of South Florida. He also has gotten advice from paramedics and picked up a lot on the Internet. It all blurred together under Ligori's interrogation.
Levinson testified he has always been taught that coaches can't prevent children from getting dehydrated. The parents must do that at home. Coaches can't watch the kids all day.
"Unless I am injecting directly into the veins, what I give a child will not absorb into their bloodstream," Levinson said. "The professionals say what (children) do 16 or 24 hours before is the crucial time."
Water breaks refresh, he said, but they don't rehydrate.
"It might cool parts of the body it is touching: the throat, the esophagus, when it's going down, but dumping water into their mouths if they are suffering from dehydration will not accomplish the goal of rehydration."
Ligori: "What would you do if you suspect somebody is suffering from heatstroke?"
Levinson: "I would call 911, remove them from the field activity, cool them down as quickly as possible, try to get them to remain conscious."
"What about rehydration?"
"I do not have the ability as a nondoctor to rehydrate anyone."
"So you wouldn't give that person suffering from heatstroke any fluids?"
"If they're heat-stroked, they probably can't take in fluid."
The boot camp doc
John Kark is a sickle cell specialist from Maryland. Kark did a study for the military involving about 2-million soldiers, including 40,000 with sickle cell trait. The aim was to prevent recruits with sickle cell trait from dying of heat illnesses during boot camp. He ended up developing a protocol for drill instructors that virtually eliminated such deaths.
If he had his way, Oxford-trained Kark wouldn't start football practice in Florida until September. "It's pretty hard to understand how you can have a summer football program here," he testified in the Stephens case. "I mean, honestly."
But if kids are going to play in July and August, Kark said they should be made to drink water — make that forced to drink water. His boot camp protocol requires that of drill instructors.
Line the children up, Kark said, just like raw Army recruits. Then tell them, "All right, every kid drinks 8 ounces of water or Gatorade. We're going to see you do it.''
He would make the kids drink 8 to 10 ounces every 20 minutes.
Kark stopped short of saying coaches could have prevented Bobby Stephens' death. But he said coaches need more training in what to do when a child collapses.
"The training of the coaches was very confusing," he testified. He cited rules for the league written by the county that include a to-do list for coaches when a child gets sick from the heat.
Coaches are told to get the child into a shady area, to loosen or remove clothing, to elevate the child's feet, and to cool him down with wet towels and ice water.
When Bobby collapsed, he said, "Apparently, that was hardly done at all. … A surprising number of coaches testified that you shouldn't give more than a little bit of water, that something horrible would happen if you pushed water harder. I think that they should have been giving him, really giving him water, not just sips of water."
Coach Chancey Scott works from 7 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening for Hillsborough County. He operates the backhoes and jockeys the sanitation trucks. He looks big enough to block for the Bucs. He's the kind of man everyone says we need more of — a guy willing to mentor boys. As soon as he clocks out at work, he heads for Nuccio Park.
In June, he testified under oath about how a child in his care died.
There was water available for the kids on the day Jamell Johnson collapsed, he testified. The kids are always free to get a drink.
He tells them, "Take a water break. Make sure you hydrate yourselves. You'll pass out if you don't hydrate yourselves."
But Scott said he hates to scare them. "Like if you're preaching, 'Drink water, drink water, you're going to die if you don't drink water,' what is that to tell a kid?"
Scott always kept an eye on Jamell because Jamell's sister was his girlfriend, Tiffany. Scott, and Tiffany had a year-old daughter named Chelsea. That made Jamell Chelsea's uncle. But Scott counted on Jamell to know how much water he needed. He couldn't say how much water Jamell drank before he collapsed.
"We did everything as far as putting ice on him, as far as putting cool rags on him."
Scott splashed water in Jamell's face. The boy was on his side. He was incoherent. Scott worried that trying to make him drink water might push him into shock.
Attorney Ligori fired questions.
"Did he seem tired?"
"I can't remember."
"Do you remember what his eyes were like?"
"I can't remember."
Finally, the big man broke down. Hydration? Heatstroke? Heat indexes? Humidity? Who knows? He was just a guy trying to share a sport with a kid he loved.
"I know he wasn't all there. But as far as you asking me his temperature and all this other stuff, you fully realize this wasn't just a player. This was a kid that I loved like my son.
"So for me to tell you that I remember his eyes, or I remember his temperature when it's two years past, and you want to get all that behind you, I can't remember all that.
"I don't want to remember him at that stage."
• • •
In the months ahead, more medical experts will weigh in on whether the coaches did the best they could for the boys. But on the rim of the grassy football bowl at Nuccio Park, Herman James probably speaks for every parent who has a kid playing football in Florida's summer heat.
"If I could," he says, watching his 7-year-old chase passes, "I'd drive a truckload of Gatorade right down on the field."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.