NEW YORK — Alarmingly, the number of athletes dying from heat-related illnesses is rising. Kelci Stringer, the widow of Vikings tackle Korey Stringer, who died from heat stroke nine years ago, hopes to do something about it.
So do the NFL and the University of Connecticut, who have partnered with Stringer to open the Korey Stringer Institute at UConn’s Neag School of Education. The creation of the institute will be announced Friday at the NFL Draft.
If the last 35 years are broken into blocks of five years, the worst segment for such deaths has been, shockingly, the last five years. According to Dr. Doug Casa, professor of kinesiology at UConn and the lead researcher for the institute, there have been twice as many deaths in that span than was the average for previous five-year blocks.
“That shows why this institute is needed so much,” Casa said. “The legacy of Korey Stringer could be saving lives.”
Stringer died of complications due to heat stroke on Aug. 1, 2001 during training camp. At 27, he was the first professional football player to die from the illness.
Kelci Stringer spent several years in court suing the NFL and equipment manufacturers, all the while envisioning a day when there are athletic trainers at every high school in the nation; today, only about half of the schools have one. And she imagined a time when pro, college and youth sports organizations have set policies on prevention of heat illnesses.
She believes that day soon will arrive.
“The first goal is to make sure this is not some sort of fly-by-night institute,” she said. “I hope we are around a long time. There’s constant research that comes out each day and we want to continue to put out that information and be a resource for every athlete in any sport at any level.
“I would hope in the short term we can help eradicate these types of heat-related deaths.”
To give the institute some cachet, Kelci Stringer sought the aid of the NFL and of Casa. The league, which settled the lawsuit over Korey’s death out of court, was impressed by her plan and her goals. So much so that the league is providing financial help, as is one of its main sponsors, Gatorade.
The NFL also will help publicize and market the institute, and few sports organizations are more effective in those areas.
In late 2008, Kelci Stringer, Casa and Jimmy Gould, who was Korey Stringer’s agent, met with NFL executives, including commissioner Roger Goodell.
“It was clear they had a strong commitment and passion in doing work in the heat illness prevention area,” said Gary Gertzog, the NFL’s senior vice president of business affairs. “We all thought this was a terrific opportunity to increase the education at all levels of sports, particularly at the youth level, so that they understand how to prevent heat illness.
“We all have been parents or coaches for youth sports and we all have seen kids playing in very extreme weather conditions. They wanted to make sure everyone understands how important it is to be properly hydrated.”
One of the primary missions of the institute will be to extend awareness, education and advocacy about the proper precautions to avoid heat stroke through its website (ksi.uconn.edu). The institute also will offer its services to athletic trainers, team physicians, athletic directors, coaches, league supervisors, parents, principals, equipment manufacturers and others to create proper protocols, policies and emergency action plans to prevent sudden death in sport, especially as it relates to heat stroke.
Casa had worked for several years with Kelci Stringer on the lawsuits. UConn has a history of research on heat illnesses and hydration, and Stringer says Casa “is like a god in this area.”
“This is a place that makes sense because of the knowledge base we have,” Casa said. “We won’t be just sharing information that we have, but we’ll be inviting other universities and high schools to share their plans related to heat stroke with us, for us to help them and critique them.”
Eventually, Kelci Stringer hopes her husband is remembered for more than the “senseless and tragic way” his life ended.
“What I really wanted while pursuing all these legal avenues is to have the NFL support my efforts in creating a legacy for Korey,” she said. “What’s been driving me was the number of young athletes we were losing each year.
“I want to make sure we almost use Korey as the catapult to bring attention and awareness to what is going on with young athletes and NFL athletes as well.”