KINGSLAND, Ga. – Lightning strikes above the live oaks lining the practice field in this coastal town in southeast Georgia. Coach Jeff Herron blows his whistle three times, giving the evacuation orders. A cheer of "Hey!" erupts from the 160 football players as they happily hustle off the field and into the gym.
Coach Herron doesn't share their enthusiasm. A lost practice puts his Camden County High School Wildcats – three-time state champions, in '03, '08, and '09 – even further behind schedule. On Aug. 1, the team was forced to scale back its first full-contact practice due to this year's new statewide heat rules.
"It was on the border," Coach Herron said of that day's weather reading, a complex formula of temperature, humidity and radiant heat. "We were planning on coming out in full pads, but we couldn't do it."
Scaling back the intensity of a football practice due to hot weather was once laughable in South Georgia, where heat, gnats and hard-hitting high school football are facts of life. But this year Georgia became the latest state to enact new rules to prevent heat-related deaths of high school football players, a category in which the state leads the nation.
"The climate's getting warmer so players are exposed to higher temperatures," said Andrew Grundstein, a climatologist at the University of Georgia and a co-author of a 2012 study of heat related deaths in high schools nationwide. Across the country, deaths of high school football players due to heat nearly tripled from 1994 to 2009 compared to the previous 15 years, according to Grundstein's study. Heat illnesses in football players have multiple causes, experts say, but as the climate heats up, practices in Georgia – and around the country – are getting watered down just to be safe.
Lose its punch
Some grumble that South Georgia's trademark football might lose its punch. South Georgia teams have won six of the past nine state championships in Georgia's highest classification. This part of the state is home to the Valdosta Wildcats, the winningest high school football team in the nation, with 869 wins, 23 state and six national championships. Camden County has lost just 15 games in Coach Herron's 13 seasons. This year they join Valdosta in the high school version of college's Southeastern Conference, a region famous for its bruising football and rabid fans.
As Camden's Aug. 25 kickoff in the Georgia Dome nears, the players say that despite a new summer routine – which meant skipping their right-of-passage summer camp – they'll be ready for the season. Coaches, players and parents say that the new heat rules are good, but they'll take some getting used to.
"Certainly it's a step in the right direction. Nobody wants to lose a kid," Herron said.
From 1980 to 2009, 58 high school football players across the nation died from heat-related illnesses, mostly in the month of August, with more than half succumbing during the morning practices when the high humidity can make conditions most oppressive, according to Grundstein and colleagues' study, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology. On average, nearly three players died each year between 1994 and 2009, up from an average of one per year over the previous 15 years. Six players died in Georgia during the study period. Two more have died since.
From 2005 to 2009, there were 18 exertional heat stroke deaths among football players nationwide, with all but one at the high school level. That's the most in any five-year block over the past 35 years, and twice the five-year average, according to the University of Connecticut's Korey Stringer Institute, which studies heat stress in sport and is named after the Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman who died from exertional heat stroke in 2001.