It was easily the worst day I’ve ever had covering professional football.
The date was July 31, 2001, and the place was Mankato, Minn., on an oppressively hot and humid day in the Midwest during a different time.
When I tell younger reporters we weren’t allowed to bring water on the practice field back in those days, sometimes I get the feeling that they believe it’s an exaggeration like the stories of walking uphill both ways to school in the snow an older generation has turned into a cliche.
As silly as that sounds now, it was not hyperbole.
And that’s what stands out most about that day is vivid memories of just how difficult it was to get through a nearly three-hour practice, and I was just standing there. The Minnesota Vikings were expending energy in full pads and a lot of it.
By that time Korey Stringer had already developed into one of the best right tackles in the NFL. But the big man still had the reputation of being a little overweight and he wanted to please his position coach, a hard-nosed former player himself, Mike Tice. Stringer refused breaks to prove his toughness and water was an oasis for the weak even as the thermometer soared past 90.
Pride, stubbornness and football’s archaic culture quickly turned into a toxic cocktail.
Stringer never tapped out and made it through the entire session but collapsed after practice. He was rushed to the medical trailer where he eventually lost consciousness because of dehydration.
No one knew it at the time but the battle was already lost. When Stringer arrived at the hospital his body temperature had reached nearly 109 degrees and he died early morning the next day.
The Vikings were devastated and the entire NFL was shaken to its core. A 27-year-old man in the prime of a great career had succumbed to heatstroke.
Everyone who plays this game understands football is an extremely dangerous sport and it always will be as evidenced by the ongoing debates over CTE and repetitive head trauma. This was different, however, because it was just so senseless.
Common sense says anyone engaging in any strenuous activity in the summer heat should have plenty of water.
Just 16 years later hydration is dogma in sports and life itself. The league instituted mandatory water breaks and rest periods after the Stringer tragedy long before the 2011 CBA scaled back practices in a dramatic fashion.
As the days passed and the show went on, there was an empty feeling writing about how the Vikings planned to kick Chris Liwienski out to right tackle to replace Stringer.
Each year when I returned, the first stop was to visit the tree planted in Stringer’s memory and the plaque that honored him in front of the old Gage Residence Hall where the Vikings stayed.
By 2013, Minnesota State was undergoing upgrades, Gage was demolished and the tree replanted outside Highland Center on campus. It will remain there as a remembrance even though the Vikings are leaving Mankato this August for the final time after training there for 52 consecutive years.
I’d like to believe Stringer died doing what he loved but I’m satisfied knowing he changed the game for the better and sacrificed himself to save countless lives through education. The Korey Stringer Institute has even helped improve working conditions in the heat outside of sports for members of the military as well as laborers.
That was never Stringer’s goal but it is his legacy and everyone in the NFL owes him a debt of gratitude.
Source: FanRag Sports