Lowndes football

Lowndes High School offensive lineman Colby Gardner goes through blocking drills with his teammates Monday evening during voluntary summer football practice at the Lowndes High practice field.

VALDOSTA — With footballs flying through the air and players dripping sweat from their helmets, football season is on its way.

However, the heat of August in South Georgia was here first and will stick around for a while, providing sweltering practice conditions.

Unfortunately for a 15-year-old Rockdale County football player, the heat was too much to bear as the teen died Tuesday morning after passing out from the heat at practice Monday. Located in the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, Rockdale saw temperatures in the mid-90s Monday and Tuesday with a heat index between 100 and 105 degrees.

Here in Valdosta, the temperature doesn’t get much cooler. With players at high schools around the region putting shoulder pads on for the first time Wednesday, heat exhaustion is an issue coaches are ready to deal with.

Players at both local high schools and at Valdosta State are urged by coaches and trainers to keep hydrated, eat right and have good fluid intake.

“The biggest problem that we incur is when guys don’t drink enough of good fluids and don’t eat very well during camp,” VSU coach Chris Hatcher said. “We make sure they do that.”

The NCAA and Georgia High School Association also have rules in place to help condition the athlete to the heat.

The players have to spend a certain amount of time playing in just helmets and then time with just helmets and pads before eventually working to practicing in full gear. Once the full gear is on, the NCAA restricts coaches from having consecutive multiple-practice days. The teams also keep trainers and water distributors nearby.

“We’re trying to keep liquid in the players,” Valdosta coach Rick Tomberlin said. “We’ve got a training staff with two full-time trainers here, and some water girls, and three students from VSU, and they’ve been getting water to our players.”

Water is made readily available with several water breaks given by coaches and football staffers, keeping water bottles in supply to players.

“We give them frequent water breaks,” Tomberlin said. “They can drink water any time they want, as much as they want. We encourage them to drink water.”

Valwood’s head coach Mike Patrick attended a coaching clinic on hydration, sponsored by Gatorade, held in Flowerbranch a year ago. With a total roster in the mid-to-late 20s the Valiants pay special attention to hydration with most all of their athletes playing both offense and defense.

“We worry more than bigger schools with our kids going both ways,” Patrick said. “We provide water and Gatorade and take as many breaks as possible.”

Gatorade sent the coaches home with informational stickers claiming four steps for better hydration.

Step 1 was to use a locker room weight and hydration chart to find out the body’s fluid needs.

VSU weighs its players before and after every practice to keep up on how much fluid is leaving a players body.

Gatorade’s No. 2 step says that 16 ounces of fluid equals one pound of weight loss, so remember to hydrate.

Step No. 3 on the list given out to coaches was to drink before, during and after practices and games. The final step was to look out for signs of dehydration and let the coach know if you’re not feeling well.

VSU keeps hydration charts above each urinal in the locker room so that players can identify hydration in their bodies.

The colored chart lets them know how much water is in their body by the light or dark yellow color of each player’s urine.

It also helps to be smart, and coaches do that by practicing earlier in the day when the sun isn’t so bright.

“We practice early, and try to get done around 10:30 (a.m.),” Tomberlin said. “Then we go at 6 (p.m.). So we’re trying to practice in cooler weather, and avoid the heat that way. And get as much liquid in them as we can. We have a practice in the middle of the day, but that’s just working on special teams, and it’s not as intense.”

With all the precautions, local football teams have not suffered the loss that Rockdale County did Tuesday. However, coaches know that the heat can cause tragic accidents.

“You hope nothing like that ever happens to one of your players,” Hatcher said. “We go the extra mile to ensure they are well educated in what they need to do to keep themselves from getting in that situation.”

Christian Malone and Chris Walsh also contributed to this story.

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