Middleton player’s death highlights area’s need for more athletic trainers

Pasco is the only area county that has full-time trainers year-round, including the summer, as well as gear that focuses on athletes who may be in danger of overheating.
Plant High players go through conditioning drills Thursday morning. (ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times)
Plant High players go through conditioning drills Thursday morning. (ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times)
Published June 28
Updated June 28

The death of Middleton High incoming freshman Hezekiah B. Walters, who collapsed after going through conditioning drills in almost 90-degree heat, has prompted area public schools to review their policies for football programs in the summer.

The most glaring need? Trained medical staff to monitor workouts during these sweltering conditions.

Walters, 14, became the third high school football player in the state to die during summer training in the past five years, joining Sebastian River’s William Shogran Jr. (2014) and Fort Myers Riverdale’s Zach Martin-Polsenberg (2017).

All three engaged in heavy exertion with no athletic trainer present, though Walters’ official cause of death has yet to be disclosed.

“How many more kids need to die before we decide it’s necessary to have full-time athletic trainers at every school, year-round?” said Erik Nason, president of the Athletic Trainers Association of Florida.

The state ranks fifth nationally in safety policies that prevent sudden death in student athletes, according to the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, named after the former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died of heat stroke complications in 2001.

[ RELATED: Middleton’s Hezekiah B. Walters remembered for devotion to church, academics and athletics ]

But one area where Florida lags is the staffing of athletic trainers. Of the 738 public and private high schools surveyed state-wide by the Korey Stringer Institute’s ATLAS (Athletic Training Locations and Services) program, only 340 had full-time trainers.

Two area counties — Pasco and Pinellas — have athletic trainers for each of their public high schools during the school year. Because of cuts to programs at local hospitals, less than half of the 27 schools in Hillsborough County have access to a trainer on a regular basis. Hernando County has medical personnel consistently for games, but not practices.

Pasco is the only county in the area that has full-time trainers, year-round, for its 13 public high schools. The cost: $300,000 per year.

That’s not all. Each Pasco County school has immersion tubs for cooling down and trainers are supplied with data thermometers that can check the core temperature of athletes who show signs of overheating.

“It’s a lot of money out of the school budget for the county, but it’s something that’s worth it for the safety of our student athletes,” Pasco County athletic director Matt Wicks said. “We’ve even extended hours (35 or more each week) so trainers can be there more in the summer.”

Gaither rising junior Jordan Oladokun runs through early-morning conditioning drills on Wednesday. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Gaither rising junior Jordan Oladokun runs through early-morning conditioning drills on Wednesday. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Typically, trainers are provided for area schools from area hospitals or physical therapy offices. Pinellas County, for example, recently renewed its contract with Morton Plant Mease Health Care and St. Anthony’s Hospital (both BayCare facilities) to cover 12 of its 16 public schools. The remaining four have contracts elsewhere.

The contract Pinellas has with BayCare increased the hours from 20 to 25 per week that trainers spend at each school for practices and games. It is up to the school’s administrators to determine how those hours are handled.

Still, the 45-week contract leaves a good portion of the summer uncovered.

“It’s a relevant conversation to have given what happened at Middleton,” Pinellas County athletic director Al Bennett said of full-time trainers. “In theory, conditioning, especially in football, should not be as strenuous as it is during the preseason and regular season. But the short answer to that is schools would have to pay trainers on their own for any extra hours they would be there in the summer.”

[ RELATED: Tampa teen who collapsed during conditioning drills on football field had body temperature of 102, report says ]

Nason wants a legislative mandate that would require full-time trainers at every high school in the state. In April, he went to Tallahassee to lobby — and educate — on the need for such a measure.

He is not alone. Online petitions were created in the wake of Walters’ June 11 death that call for full-time trainers at every public high school in Hillsborough and neighboring Polk County. The one in Hillsborough has nearly 2,000 signatures.

Florida High School Athletic Association spokesman Kyle Niblett said there is “zero” push from membership or state legislatures on making that a requirement.

“It would be challenging considering the budget restraints each school district has,” Niblett said. “We could possibly suggest (full-time trainers), but to tell nearly 800 schools in our association how to spend their money when everyone is on a different budget probably would not go over well in terms of the vote.”

Nason disagrees.

“School districts keep crying about the cost, but at what price?” Nason said. “What’s more valuable than the safety and well-being of student-athletes. Having a trainer is not foolproof. Things can still happen. But it is a big preventable measure to keep these deaths or other heat-related illnesses from happening.”

Plant High players go through conditioning drills Thursday morning. (ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times)
Plant High players go through conditioning drills Thursday morning. (ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times)

Springstead High athletic director Dustin Kupcik just wants a trainer — no matter what time of year. Last season, a local chiropractor attended the school’s football games and most of the basketball games. A pediatrician stayed on the sideline for boys soccer games, too, mostly because his son was on the team.

“It’s scary and comical that the state government felt it was more important to pass a law that enabled kids to be free agents rather than pass any type of legislation requiring athletic trainers,” Kupcik said.

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Kupcik, also an assistant football coach at the school, said he once had a player take an ice bath as a precautionary measure because he was showing signs of overheating. He also has had confrontations with parents after taking their child out of a game because of injury concerns.

“It’s important to have that third party in there, that is removed from the game and isn’t being judged on wins and losses,” Kupcik said. “Too often a kid wants to go back in the game or a coach wants or needs that kid to go back in. If we’re all being honest, without a medical professional, no one really knows if they really should be going back in.”

Kupcik said geography is the biggest reason there are no full-time trainers in Hernando County.

“We’re too far away from Tampa, too far away from Orlando or Ocala, and none of the universities or big time hospitals want anything to do with us,” Kupcik said. “We are just outside of their reach or target audience.”

Summer conditioning, which mostly involve weight lifting and running for football players, takes place in the two months before practice officially begins July 29. The FHSAA does little to regulate those workouts, leaving it up school districts to decide things such as preferred workout times.

County athletic directors Bennett and Wicks each have encouraged teams to avoid practicing from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., typically the hottest time of the day. Walters collapsed around 4 p.m. after the team had completed 30 to 40 minutes of drills.

Tampa Bay Tech coach Jayson Roberts schedules conditioning at 4 p.m. so he can have all 15 of his assistants there at the same time. They break the players into groups, with the incoming freshmen going at a slower pace to become more acclimated to strenuous workouts.

The coaches are not just surveying the drills. They are checking to see if any players are exhibiting signs of heat-related illness — without the aid of a trainer.

“What happened at Middleton opened everyone’s eyes,” Roberts said. “You have to be on the lookout for everything. But we’re not doctors. We don’t know if a kid has any underlying medical issues that needs to be looked at more closely.

“We’re just trying to do the best we can to get through these summer months when we don’t have a trainer and pray that nothing happens.”

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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