Posted on January 24, 2009 · Posted in Brain Injury

Date: 1/24/2009

Associated Press Writers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Football players know them as “gassers” — sprints up and down the field to build stamina.

Sophomore Max Gilpin and his Pleasure Ridge Park teammates spent the tail end of a three-hour practice on a sweltering August day in Louisville running the drill that is a coaching staple across the country, hoping to impress enough to earn varsity playing time that fall.

They sprinted 12 times in what felt like 94-degree heat, sometimes with helmets and pads, as the coaches pushed them to go harder and harder. It was a drill like those on many high school football fields, until Gilpin, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound offensive lineman, collapsed to the turf just 15 minutes after a teammate went down.

Three days later, the 15-year-old Gilpin was dead from heat stroke, with authorities saying his body temperature was 107 degrees when he reached the hospital. Five months later, his first-year head coach David Jason Stinson is facing a reckless homicide charge, with a prosecutor saying the coach should have realized a player could get heat stroke in such broiling weather.

Harold Jarrard, whose grandson played on the offensive line, was there Aug. 20 and said coaches were shouting at the players, encouraging them to pick it up as practice wound down.

“It was just a normal day of practice,” he said. “They always run gassers at the end. It’s a daily activity. Nothing was different that day. I never heard anything out of the ordinary.

“You hear them being threatened every day, stuff like ‘If you don’t straighten up, you’re out of here.’ It was just regular,” he said.

Interviews with witnesses and a review of filings in a civil lawsuit brought by Gilpin’s parents against the coaching staff, including depositions, Stinson’s handwritten notes and weather logs filed with the school, shed some light on what happened that day.

For Brian Bale, who was watching his daughter play soccer on an adjacent field during most of football practice, the way coaches were yelling at players was “appalling,” he said in an e-mail to the school district two days later. Bale declined an interview request from The Associated Press on Friday.

But he wrote in the e-mail: “Those coaches thought that they were training young teenagers for the Navy SEALS team instead of a football team. I never once in the time I was there saw anyone offered a water break. I did, however, hear the coach say numerous times that all he needed was one person to say that they quit the team and all of the suffering and running and heat would be over.”

That’s exactly what Kim Englert’s son, David, did — quit that day.

David Englert said “Coach Stinson made the team run sprints until someone quit,” Gilpin’s mother, Michele Crockett, said in court filings.

Heat exposure deaths happen occasionally in football from the sandlot to the pros, the most famous example being Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer in 2001. Lawsuits have been filed in many of those cases, but it doesn’t appear that a coach has ever been criminally charged.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel declined to say why he chose this case for a grand jury. Stinson, a technical teacher at the school who has been reassigned pending the outcome of the case, is scheduled to be arraigned on Monday.

His attorney, Alex Dathorne, did not return calls from The Associated Press on Friday.

Jarrard said Gilpin’s death weighed heavily on Stinson throughout the season as the Panthers finished with a 4-4 record. The coach brought Gilpin’s jersey to each game in tribute, though he made no changes to his team’s practice routine, according to his notes.

“He’s a real gentleman, he’s got kids of his own,” Jarrard said. “He lost a boy that day, too.”

Stinson is no stranger to hot August football training camps. The former high school and college offensive lineman played briefly with the NFL’s New York Giants. At the 1,900-student Pleasure Ridge Park, he spent three years as the offensive line coach before taking over the team in January 2008.

Stinson’s weather log showed a heat index of 94 degrees as practice started at 2:30 p.m. The index is a measure of how hot it feels based on temperature and humidity.

A small group watched the workout, including Gilpin’s father, Jeff Gilpin, who sat next to Jarrard for most of the final two hours of the session, according to Jarrard and court documents.

Practice began with players congregating in the locker room before moving on to weights and film review. They took the field at 3:45 p.m. The team went through a variety of stretches and drills for about an hour before being given three water breaks in a 30-minute period, the log shows.

Then at 5:30 p.m. came the gassers.

About a half-hour later, the first player collapsed, and Stinson sent him to a nearby tree for shade and treated him with water and ice packs, according to the coach’s notes.

Gilpin collapsed 15 minutes later, at about 6:10 p.m., as the rest of the team headed for the shade tree for an end-of-practice meeting.

Assistant coach Steve Deacon called 911 when Gilpin stopped responding to ice packs and water. In the call, made at 6:17 p.m., Deacon describes Gilpin as pale, with a “big rapid pulse.”

“Yes … he’s breathing … yeah … he’s going … kinda going in and out on us though,” Deacon said.

Christina Spiva, the mother of another Pleasure Ridge Park student, called Gilpin’s mother a few minutes later.

“You need to get here quick. He’s been down here for a while and I don’t think they are moving fast enough,” Spiva said.

Crockett arrived at the school at 6:27 p.m. and found her son limp, with bloodshot eyes staring straight ahead, an ice pack behind his neck and a hose spilling water over the pack. Two people were pumping his legs to “keep Max’s circulation going,” Crockett said. Crockett did not return calls to The Associated Press and a phone number found for Jeff Gilpin was not his.

Paramedics arrived about the same time and made an unsuccessful attempt at putting a tube down Max Gilpin’s throat before rushing him to the hospital, where he remained for three days before he died of septic shock, multiple organ failure and heat stroke. His teammate who collapsed was released several days later.

Gilpin was one of six heat-related deaths in high school and college athletics in 2008, said Dr. Frederick Mueller with the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

More than 120 athletes have died under similar circumstances since 1931.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447