TAMPA — A Hillsborough County school district investigation found that Middleton High did not have proper paperwork on file for Hezekiah B. Walters, an incoming freshman football player who died in June while going through conditioning drills.
Walters, 14, had not submitted documentation that he watched a district-required video on heat-related safety and his athletic physical form was missing, superintendent Jeff Eakins said during Monday’s news conference.
“We believe Hezekiah had an athletic physical, but his family had not uploaded it into our system at the time conditioning began,” he said.
Eakins, who provided limited information because of an expected lawsuit, did not take questions from reporters.
Nearly three weeks ago, the Yerrid Law Firm representing the Walters family sent a legal claim letter seeking documents related about the workout when Hezekiah collapsed. The letter said Hezekiah’s father informed Middleton coaches that his son had never performed rigorous training before and “would need appropriate instruction, supervision and guidance while being gradually conditioned into team activities that only experienced and prepared athletes are acclimatized to endure."
The lack of record keeping for Walters resulted in the demotion of Middleton assistant principal Mark Jones and the transfer of head coach Fred Reid to another school. Reid was not present the day Walters died, but had conducted previous workouts, according to Eakins.
When Walters died at St. Joseph’s Hospital, his temperature was 102 degrees, according to an investigative summary released by the Hillsborough County medical examiner.
The school district investigation found the Middleton assistant coaches in charge of conditioning the day Walters died gave the players plenty of water breaks, and they were monitored throughout the drills in the afternoon heat.
The Florida High School Athletic Association requires its member schools to have automated external defibrillators on campus. The location of the device must be registered with a local emergency medical services director.
School employees and volunteers who use the defibrillator have to go through training that includes a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Eakins said Middleton does have a defibrillator, but the coaches did not use it on Walters because he was still breathing. The assistants poured cold water on Walters and called 911.
Reid, who will no longer coach according to Eakins, was replaced by Mike Williams, the former Plant High and USC standout. Williams officially took over at Middleton on Monday and spent the day introducing himself to coaches, players and parents.
The county investigation also found incomplete paperwork for other student-athletes at the school.
“That is unacceptable,” Eakins said.
This was the first school year that Hillsborough County required all paperwork for public high school athletes to be submitted online before they can become eligible. Robinson High went online last year as part of a pilot program. Some coaches complained about the process, especially at schools where access to computers and smartphones can be difficult.
After Walters’ death, the district halted all summer workouts and athletic activities. Coaches were ordered to review all safety procedures for taking part in athletics; school staff had to check the records of all student-athletes to ensure they were eligible to take part in offseason conditioning; and every school’s principal had to inform the district once these steps were completed.
“We have an expectation that our staff will make sure all of the documents are uploaded and checked before any athlete can go on the field,” Eakins said. “That’s one of the reasons why we immediately stopped all conditioning until we could confirm that all student-athletes had submitted their appropriate paperwork. Every school has confirmed that it was checked and that process has been completed.”
Another issue Eakins addressed was the glaring need for trained medical staff to monitor workouts during conditioning drills.
Walters 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.
Eakins said there are athletic trainers at about half of the public high schools, including one at Middleton. Trainers are not school employees and their time is typically donated to the school from a medical group or outside organization.
The county schools currently with trainers do not have them during summer conditioning. Middleton’s trainer was not onsite when Walters died.
Eakins is going to recommend at the next school board meeting in August that each high school has a full-time athletic trainer. That would include having trainers during the summer. The district also has immersion tubs at each high school that Eakins will recommend be used in warm conditions.
On Monday, the superintendent sent a letter to parents about the changes made to ensure the safety of student-athletes.
“One full-time trainer at each school cannot be everywhere at all times,” Eakins said. “All our paid coaches will continue to receive emergency medical training. An athletic trainer is not the only answer, but it is a part of our plan.”