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First day in full pads brings scorching heat

The temperatures rose into the mid-90s. The humidity reached almost 50 percent. And the heat index fluctuated somewhere between "boiling point" and "hot as the sun."

It wasn't exactly the ideal setting for the first day in full pads, but that's precisely what Monday was for high school football teams in the state of Georgia.

Though thanks to a new county-wide policy, which was mandated by the Georgia High School Association, some teams were forced to take the pads off halfway through practice while others didn't put them on at all.

"We didn't go in pads because of the heat," said Central Gwinnett head coach Dennis Roland. "The heat index was such that we just went in shorts and helmets."

Said Collins Hill head coach Larry Sherrill: "We were able to get through the first half of practice in pads, but 30 minutes into the second part of practice we had to take the pads off and go in shorts and helmets."

The heat was a red flag to coaches all across the county. Literally.

The new policy was adopted after the recent rash of heat-related deaths and illnesses on the nation's football practice fields. It applies to all sports and features four different colored flags to signify the danger level.

A green flag means the heat index (a measure of the temperature plus the humidity) is at 95 degrees or less. A yellow flag is between 95 and 99 degrees, a red flag is between 100 and 105 and a black flag is any reading above 105 degrees.

In a yellow flag situation, teams are recommended to keep practices to two and a half hours and are required to take mandatory water breaks every 30 to 45 minutes and use iced-down towels for cooling.

In a red flag scenario, which happened throughout most of the county on Monday, teams were required to have the same mandatory water breaks and iced-down towels as well as allow for changes into dry T-shirts and shorts. The policy also recommends that the practices should not exceed two hours.

In a black flag situation, the policy reads: "Stop all outside activity in practice and/or play and stop all inside activity if air conditioning is not available."

Every team in the county has a heat-index measuring device and must check it every 30 minutes during practice.

"This county is so big that the heat index can vary from school to school," said Gwinnett County director of athletics, student activities and community schools Mike Emery, who helped formulate the policy along with Collins Hill certified trainer Lara Sikes and other athletic directors and football coaches from around the county.

"When I was up at Mill Creek today the heat index was 113 degrees, so they immediately brought all the kids into the building ... and then I called down to Norcross and it was 102. So they made practice modifications and took off the equipment."

Another important part of the policy is weight loss.

Before a practice, if a player weighs in at three percent less than he did the day before, he is not allowed to participate.

"The whole key is to make sure they gain their weight back, or a large percentage of it, before the next day," Sherrill said. "It varies with the players, but we had one kid that weighs 230 pounds and he lost seven pounds (Monday). So he needs to gain about five or six pounds of that back by (today)."

If he doesn't, he can't practice. It's as simple as that.

The policy, which Collins Hill has been using since before Sherrill was the head coach, is a testament to just how far sports medicine and training has come in recent years.

Back when Sherrill and Roland were playing the game, coaches would withhold water as punishment and players might be viewed as weak if they dared ask for a sip.

"Back then they didn't give us any water at all," Roland said with a laugh.

"The other players thought you were a wimp if you got thirsty on the practice field," said Sherrill, who added that they were ordered to take salt tablets before and after practice. "But training and injury care has progressed so much since then."

Still, it seems as if every year there are a handful of heat-related deaths around the country.

Roland has a theory on why that is, and why coaches now have to be much more careful in monitoring their players.

"No. 1, the game is faster," he said. "It's really sped up. And the kids are so much bigger now. They carry more mass. Back when I played, and this is off the top of my head, but I think the average weight of a high school football team was probably around 145, 150 pounds.

"Now it's probably 175, 180, maybe even more than that. Kids carry more muscle and more mass. And I don't know if it's any hotter now than it was when I played, but back then we didn't have air conditioning. Most kids didn't have air conditioning so maybe their systems were more acclimated to the heat."

That's not to say that the players from that era just shrugged off those triple digit afternoons.

"I specifically remember one day after practice," Roland said with a laugh. "I was laying in the back of a car with a total body cramp. And I was praying to the Lord, 'Please let me survive this.'"

It's a balancing act for coaches today. While the safety of their players is paramount, they also have to get those same players ready for the grueling season ahead. They have to get their bodies adjusted for those Friday night battles.

Because ever since the sport was invented, football practice has been hard. It's been draining. So it might be difficult to determine when a player is just tired and when he is actually in danger.

"Coaches are more conditioned to it now," Roland said. "They're more cognizant of it. My players are all someone's son and I try to treat them just like they were Dennis Jr. I coach them just like I'd want him to be coached."

Said Sherrill: "We're absolutely not going to take a chance on a kid's health ... this game is a great game and it's played with great zeal in the South. And it's very important to everybody. But it's just a game. You're talking about a kid's life and we will always do everything in our power to keep our players safe."