"You’ve got to suck it up."
"This is where we get
"This is what helps us win in the fourth quarter."
These are all things that can be heard echoing across practice fields during the scorching summer afternoons each August from the mouths of football coaches preparing their teams for the season to come.
Players are put to the test in practices that can run upwards of three hours and that often conclude with grueling conditioning drills and while these staples of practice routines can definitely have a team in top shape, the dangerous heat that is making daily appearances throughout Georgia can force some changes to be made by coaches to prevent an exercise in health and endurance from becoming a tightrope walk on the line between productivity and serious health risks.
Headlines were made across the state Tuesday as a pair of high school football players died from heat-related illnesses incurred while practicing. They were the first heat-related deaths in the state in four years and serve as a tragic reminder that even the best preventative measures can’t stop every threat that comes with the summer heat.
The Georgia High School Association maintains strict regulations stating, among other things, that each member institution must have a plan for allotting rest and hydration increases at certain levels of heat and humidity and that an approved instrument to measure heat index be present at all practices.
But beyond those standards, schools around Bulloch County are taking extra precautions — often just those of the common sense variety — to ensure that everyone is as safe as possible while still able to accomplish each day’s goals at practice.
Although full pads are now allowed, many schools like Statesboro, Southeast Bulloch and Portal have been conducting practices in just helmets and shoulder pads. Getting used to moving with the restrictions of gear is a necessary aspect of playing, but by eliminating heavily padded pants and hip protection, players can stay a little cooler on the field.
One of the biggest safety measures is simply having a keen eye.
“We schedule a little more time for breaks and water if it is really hot,” said SEB middle school assistant coach Brian Lawson. “But one of the biggest things is knowing the signs of a kid that might be getting overheated. If someone looks like they’re struggling, we sit them down and cool them off.”
Numerous coaches also stressed that there is no exact formula for keeping everyone safe. Just drinking water isn’t always enough to keep from overheating and the effects of heat exhaustion are something that can last much longer than just a few minutes of tiredness after a practice.
One school that has gotten a little more creative in keeping its players cool is Screven County.
With school still out of session this week, the Gamecocks have taken over the gym, spending nights at the school in order to hit the practice field at 6:30 a.m. before the sun starts to take its toll.
“It really helps,” said Screven coach Greg Manior. “When we start to work that early, we beat the worst of the heat and can go a little longer and harder at practice.
As a member of the Georgia Independent School Association, Bulloch Academy is not bound by the same GHSA restrictions, but still takes ample precautions in protecting its players from the heat.
“We’re stopping every twenty minutes for water and taking the pads off for a few minutes every hour,” said Bulloch coach Ronnie Hodges. “The GISA doesn’t require us to do anything, but we still take precautions. This heat can be dangerous. Luckily, we haven’t had any issues, but we certainly don’t take it lightly.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.