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The Boy Who Died of Football
Thomas Lake
December 06, 2010
Three days after he collapsed from heatstroke at practice in 2008, 15-year-old Max Gilpin became one of at least 665 boys since 1931 to die as a result of high school football. Here's what made his case different: The Commonwealth of Kentucky tried to prove Max's coach had a hand in killing him
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December 06, 2010

The Boy Who Died Of Football

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Before the trial Stengel put his chance of winning a conviction at less than 10%, based on how the people of Louisville felt about football. "Football coaches," he said, "are right up there with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost." This is why, during jury selection, his assistants did their best to identify football bias. They asked all fantasy football players to raise their hands. They tried to weed out college football season-ticket holders. They tried—and failed miserably—to stock the jury with women. And women might not have helped them anyway. Max's girlfriend's mother, Misty Scott, had marinated so long in football culture that she could stand in her driveway one afternoon and say about Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's departure: "Louisville football went down the drain so fast that we're still washing the red out of the sink."

More to the point, the commonwealth had a fragile case. Stinson would later look back at the 13 days of the trial and decide his attorneys had racked up 12 wins, no losses and one tie. So why did Stengel prosecute a case he knew he would lose? There are two prevalent theories, and Stengel denies them both. One says he got the indictment before he understood the science of what happened to Max, and by that time it was too late to back out because the national media had descended. The other theory says the prosecution was a kind of public-service announcement intended to make coaches be more careful. Which it did. Some coaches reconsidered their use of negative motivation, and the state passed regulations that required more first-aid training and better education on heat illness.

The prosecutors tried to prove that Stinson withheld water that day, but one player after another said he'd taken several water breaks, including one right before the sprints. Besides, dehydration wasn't a factor in Max's death. Three doctors said so: Bill Smock, who usually testifies for the prosecution in Louisville; George Nichols, who founded the state medical examiner's office in Kentucky; and Dan Danzl, a co-author of the hallowed textbook Rosen's Emergency Medicine. The best the prosecution's kidney expert could do was to conclude from the records that Max was just dehydrated enough to be thirsty.

When the commonwealth attacked Stinson for his failure to help Max, the defense was ready. Stinson's attorneys showed that several other people quickly came to Max's aid and did the same things—applying ice packs, dousing him with water, removing his socks, calling 911 after a few minutes—that Stinson would have done if he'd been there. Both sides agreed that the presence of a certified athletic trainer might have improved Max's chances, but trainers are expensive, and the school was not required to have one at the practice.

The doctors agreed that Max died of complications from exertional heatstroke. This, of course, raised a crucial question: Why was Max the only player to die? The defense proposed an answer.

Tests from the hospital showed amphetamines in Max's system. They were most likely from the Adderall, the drug Max reluctantly took for better focus in school. And while it's impossible for Adderall alone to have caused Max's collapse—he'd been taking it for a year, and other boys at the practice also took Adderall—it could have slightly raised his body temperature.

There was also the creatine. It's not a banned substance, but the NCAA forbids colleges to distribute it to athletes. Max's mother said she hadn't bought it for him since March or April, but a friend testified that he saw Max taking creatine a week or two before his collapse. While scientists disagree on the possibility of side effects, a 2002 article in the journal Neurosurgery said there is credible evidence that creatine might contribute to heatstroke in some people.

But Max had probably been on both Adderall and creatine at other practices, some of them hotter than 94º. Something had to be different on Aug. 20.

The prosecutors had a theory. The difference was Coach Stinson. He lost his temper and forced the boys to run much harder than usual.

Except they weren't running for that long. Many football teams practice twice a day in the summer. There was just one practice that day, and it was a short one. The boys ran sprints for no more than 40 minutes; actually it was much less, because they were in two alternating groups. Each group ran for about 20 minutes. Some boys gave implausibly high estimates for the number of 220-yard sprints they ran in that time period—as many as 32. It probably seemed like 32, but Coach Stinson always said it was 12, and the math works in his favor. No one was allowed to start running until everyone in the other group had finished, including the players who were barely running; that would mean Max ran about a mile and a half, the majority of it in helmet and pads.

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