Boy’s collapse at football practice highlights danger of heat

After a 12-year-old collapsed last week during an outdoor youth football practice, his family worries whether coaches are ignoring the extreme heat and not giving players breaks to recover and hydrate.

Johnny Tolbert Jr. is on life support at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston after having a seizure during youth football practice July 14 with the Welcome All Park Athletic Association youth league. Doctors tell the family Johnny Junior, as he’s called, may not survive.

“He’s been on life support since he’s been here,” Bridgett Simpson, Johnny Junior’s grandmother.

In Georgia, where the heat index consistently reaches triple digits during summer months, heat policies for Georgia high schools and other organized sports suggest the players should not have been on the field.

For school teams, coaches do pay attention to the heat — and their athletes — for signs that something’s amiss, said Horace Dunson, executive director for athletics for the DeKalb County School District.

“Quite often, we’ll cancel practices according to temperatures,” he said. Coaches “are always charged with monitoring the students during practice, seeing how they respond to the workouts, their stamina and making appropriate decisions to make sure the children are safe.”

Metro Atlanta is in the middle of a heat streak: Friday was day 43 of consecutive days of 90 degrees or more.

Tartithia Wright, Johnny Junior’s mother, told Simpson that coaches put her son’s team through more than two hours of practice, as temperatures that afternoon topped out at 93 degrees, with no hydration or breaks. Johnny Junior spent the previous five summers playing youth football with the Welcome All Park Athletic Association. This was his first year with a new team, the Panthers.

“She was upset, so she called (Johnny Junior’s) father to the park,” Simpson said. “The way the kids were looking, she didn’t like it.”

Efforts to reach Jerrell Adams, football commissioner for the Welcome All Park Athletic Association, were not successful Friday.

Simpson said she received a frantic call from her daughter that day, screaming that Johnny collapsed. She said he has no history of seizures.

“They weren’t sure what was going on,” Simpson said. “There was no CPR performed. We’re not sure whether anybody just didn’t know how. It was 40 minutes before paramedics came.”

The Georgia High School Association has a policy that follows modified guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine, offering tips on scheduling practices, the amount of time spent outside depending on the temperature as well as deciding when to end a practice. For example, practice is limited to two hours when temperatures are between 87 and 90 degrees.

Over 92 degrees? No outdoor practice should take place.

Schools violating the heat policy can receive fines between $500 and $1,000.

Dunson, of the DeKalb County School District, said his district’s policy for outdoor practices is in line with GHSA guidelines. There are times, though, when gut decisions make the rules.

He said the district makes sure students are cleared by a physician to participate. During conditioning drills, which take place indoors as well as outdoors, coaches are constantly watching to see how players respond to workouts to make appropriate decisions for their safety.

“This is a popular state for football and lots of kids are participating,” he said. “The most important thing is that education is in place to train the high school and youth associations.”

He mentioned that the GHSA offers training for coaches to make sure they’re in compliance.

In 2014, Douglas County High School student Zyrees Oliver collapsed during football practice. Doctors said he died from drinking too much water and Gatorade before practicing.

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