Brookwood deals with the heat

During the preseason at Brookwood High School, the football players seemingly are lavished with a table of fresh fruit, along with a steady supply of popsicles and flavored sports drinks during breaks.

The ripe bananas, pineapples, and red apples are not rewards for Brookwood winning last year’s state championship in Georgia’s largest classification. They are part of a methodical grand plan at the Gwinnett County school to keep the team hydrated and healthy in the dog days of summer.

Hot weather remains a major concern for high school athletics across the state after two football players died last week after practices, although it is still being determined whether their deaths were heat-related.

Brookwood has taken extra precautions for years and has the generous funds of its booster club to fund them. Before two-a-day practices last week, the coaches did some grocery shopping for the team’s 72 varsity players.

“We go to Kroger, and we might buy a dozen gallons of orange juice, and like a case of red apples, bananas and that kind of stuff,” Brookwood coach Mark Crews explained. “We try to get the fruit high in potassium, and the kind of stuff that is going to help them with their hydration.”

Brookwood defensive back Zach Jackson, who has committed to sign a scholarship with Illinois in February, likes the free fruit. “It feels good to get something on your stomach in the morning, especially in this kind of heat,” he said.

The Broncos also may get a perk or two during practice. A team mother brought popsicles for the players last week, and the coaching staff often has a drink machine stocked with Powerade. It’s easy to tell when it’s not water waiting for them, according to Jackson.

“Some players just get tired of water, and they want something sweet and something with some flavor,” Jackson said with a laugh. “When Coach Crews gives us some break time, and we know it’s Powerade, usually every single player is running to the station to get some.”

Actually, Crews and his assistants have to monitor the players to make sure they consume the light food and drink. Some players, including those who have dropped an unusual amount of weight over a short period, may avoid it.

“When we send them for water, they don’t have an option,” Crews said. “We’re like ‘Don’t stand around here and say you’re not thirsty. We didn’t ask you if you were thirsty. Please get some water with everybody else so you can stay hydrated.’”

Crews, like many other coaches in the metro area, has his players’ safety as the top priority. Brookwood has an intense year-round conditioning program that prepares the team for bristling heat. When summer practices start for the Broncos, 14 coaches and two certified athletic trainers keep eyes on the players.

It’s nothing like the scene when Crews, 56, played nearly three decades ago at Columbia High School and Tennessee-Chattanooga.

“A wet bulb would be out on the field every day, that big thing would look like it was about to collapse, and my coach would say ‘Go put that thing in the shade before someone sees it,’” Crews said. “That was in the old days ... when the coach would stand there with the water hose and everybody would line up. You’d get about three or four swallows of water before coach would say ‘All right, that’s enough, get out of here.’

“During that time period, we didn’t really know any different. Nobody had air conditioners in their car or their house. We didn’t sit around on the couch and play Nintendo all the time. We were outside playing the heat, and we didn’t really know about heat illnesses and things like that. Obviously, times have changed.”

Nowadays, you may see a player haul around a milk jug of water to practices. It’s another way to stay hydrated, and a semi-tradition at Brookwood. Some players even carry around the milk jug with their books to classes in the day or two preceding a game.

Brookwood running back Nick Tompkins said the teachers don’t seem to mind. “They don’t really say anything because they know we’re football players, and we’re trying to stay hydrated for the game,” he said. “They really don’t care as long as it’s just water in it.”