USF Bulls Turn To Heat Sensor To Keep Players Cool

Picture a hot August morning in Florida when you are breaking a sweat simply stepping out the back door to start your daily 30-minute walk. You know that the temperatures are going to hit triple digits and even your dog doesn't want to go outside.

Now picture waking up on that August morning and running to a wide-open football field with no shade whatsoever, strapping on at least 20 pounds of hardware and running for about two hours -- running head-first, sweat on top of sweat, into men that weigh more than 250 pounds.

Then, think about coming back for more of the same brutal activity later in the afternoon, strapping on the equipment and running around for two more hours, fighting off mosquitoes with an attitude.

Welcome to college football at the University of South Florida. It isn't much different at any of the hundreds of universities around the nation who are already planning in January how best to put their players through the hell of summer so that they will be ready for September when the games start to count all over again.

Coping with summer's heat and what it does to the body has been top of mind for football coaches and players' families ever since Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Kory Stringer collapsed and died from heat stroke in 2001. Stringer died during a training camp session after several Pro Bowl seasons. After Stringer, who weighed a career-low 335 pounds at the time, passed away, more attention was given to hydrating athletes and USF jumped ahead of the pack in 2006 when it introduced the CorTemp Wireless Monitoring System.

The CorTemp system is a pill that players take before practice that was developed by Johns Hopkins University. USF was one of the first schools to use it and continues to share its research results with others. The pill, about the size of a regular multivitamin, is a crystal temperature sensor with a battery and electronic transmitter.

The pill works by passing through the stomach into the small intestine. After taking measurements, a small alarm goes off if the body temperature reaches 102.5 degrees.

The pills cost about $40 apiece, but the crystal vibrates in accordance with the temperature surrounding it so that team doctors can get an accurate reading on a player's core temperature simply by touching the number on a player's uniform with a sensor. Players are also weighed before and after practices to get a sense of how much weight was lost during practice that day.

Dr. Eric Coris is the medical team physician at USF and monitors the entire system. He understands that body temperatures are going to soar under hot summer mornings and afternoons, but he said the university is taking every precaution possible. Water breaks are taken throughout practices and that is a relatively new phenomenon.

It wasn't long ago that college football coaches deprived their players of water as punishment for underachieving. Those coaches weren't doing it to be sadistic; they simply didn't know any better.

Monitoring To Save Lives

"We start to get concerned when the body temperature reaches about 102,'' Coris said at the USF Athletic Center. "When the temperature hits 103, we pull them away from any activity. We couldn't do that until recently but we monitor the players very closely. We mostly have problems with offensive and defensive linemen since they weigh more than 300 pounds but at least we know what to watch for.''

According to an annual study by the University of North Carolina, at least 35 high school and college players have died of heat stroke in the past 10 years. A high school football coach in Kentucky was charged with reckless homicide in 2009 after depriving a player of water during a summer practice. The freshman offensive lineman had a core body temperature of 107 degrees when he collapsed. Former UCF running back Ereck Plancher, the brother of USF running back Moise Plancher, died in 2008 of heat stroke. Moise Plancher said he will never get over the loss of his brother.

The monitoring doesn't stop at just the heat pill. USF is also a forerunner in the VO2 mask, which monitors the amount of oxygen a player uses during practice or a game. USF is able to pay for the expensive devices after receiving a $20,000 grant from the National Football League after Stringer's death.

"No one was using these things until we started experimenting,'' Coris says. "We are part of the leading edge here at USF with this technology. We wanted to be ahead of the learning curve on this.''

Coris said that USF, working with experts from the University of Connecticut, has been instructing the University of Florida as well as other universities. Coach Skip Holtz is an advocate for use of the monitor and gives regular water breaks.

A mandatory water break is given at the six-minute mark of every quarter at high school football games throughout Florida.

Overheating incidents happen in many athletic competitions, not only football but also other strenuous activities such as cross-country running. The cost of the pills often prevents non-football sports teams and high schools from using them, but the costs are starting to go down as the success rates go up.

Looking For Relief Indoors

Coris, who attended medical school at USF, said that he would love to see the school build an indoor practice facility. Many large Division I schools have those types of facilities and the air conditioning makes it a little less strenuous on the players during the summer. It is often said that schools in the South are better equipped to handle the regular season because they are put through so much heat in the summer. Does it toughen the players?

Coris says no. "All they are doing is getting drained in the summer and it saps their energy,'' Coris says. "You see teams wear down late in the year because they don't have anything left in the tank. The coaches might think their players are toughening up by doing all of that work in the summer, but look at Florida teams when December rolls around.''

USF has struggled in recent years as the season has gone on. In 2007, the Bulls were ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into late October and then lost three straight games and fell to a mid-level bowl game.

The pill is now being used by at least three NFL teams and is also used for other purposes. In 1998, astronaut John Glenn took one when he flew aboard the space shuttle. Doctors are also using the pill to study sleep disorders because the body temperature is at its lowest during sleep.

Coris said that improvements in monitoring the body temperature of athletes are only beginning. The days of depriving athletes of water have been replaced by careful monitoring and there's no end to what the medical profession can do to make sure there are no more Stringer incidents.

"A lot of it is common sense,'' Coris said. "We are making improvements and we at USF like being a pioneer at saving more athletes from suffering needlessly.''

Jeff Berlinicke of Tampa is a freelance writer who has spent much of the last 15 covering professional sports all over the Southeast United States. When not rooting for his favorite teams, he often can be found listening to Bruce Springsteen or teeing up on local golf courses. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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