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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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It is almost unimaginable. Never mind how long Max actually ran. What matters is that he ran far longer than he should have, despite what must have been terrible pain, even though quitting would have saved his life. And in dying he probably saved the lives of several boys who might otherwise suffer the same fate.

Cold blue twilight, Salvation Army parking lot. A very large man stands by a folding table, digging for clean underwear in a cardboard box. When he finds the white briefs, he holds them up, like a merchant or an auctioneer, until a poor man steps out of the crowd to claim them.

"Got a large sweater! Anybody? Anybody?" The large man's voice carries across the parking lot. "Long-sleeve, flannel! Nah, we're outta socks right now. Still lookin'. All right, brother. You have a good one."

All right, brother. This is how the men of Valley View Church talk. They come downtown every Monday night to feed and clothe the needy, and Jason Stinson comes with them because he is a free man. To him this is an act of godly obedience, not atonement, because Stinson is not guilty of anything. The jury said so. It took less than 90 minutes to decide.

When the giving is done, Stinson walks into the Texas Roadhouse off Dixie Highway, less than a mile from Max Gilpin's grave, and orders an eight-ounce sirloin, medium, and a baked potato with butter and sour cream. Every few minutes a high school girl comes over to smile and say hello. While he was under indictment, Stinson was placed in an administrative position away from children. But he is back in the classroom now, coaching basketball this fall. He plans to coach football again. Another man might have moved to another school or even another town, but that would be quitting. Anyway, there was no need. Stinson's stature in Pleasure Ridge Park is probably greater now than it was before. His supporters rose up with him for victory.

"We busted 'em in the teeth," Stinson says, referring to the criminal trial, by way of saying he and his lawyers would have done the same thing in the civil trial if it had gone that far. It was the school's insurance companies that insisted on the $1.75 million settlement in September with Max Gilpin's parents, he says. Purely a business decision. No one admitted anything.

During a bench conference at the criminal trial, Stinson's own attorney, Dathorne, said to the judge, "I think you can almost take judicial notice that Jason Stinson was being a jerk that day. Everybody said that." Now, at the roadhouse, when Stinson is asked to acknowledge the truth of this statement, he refuses. "I don't know what Alex meant by that," he says. "You'd have to ask him."

After interviews with more than 125 witnesses, the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) delivered their own report on the Max Gilpin incident. It was so favorable to Stinson that Stengel called it "the biggest cover-up since Watergate." Nevertheless, school superintendent Sheldon Berman had a few things to say about Stinson's conduct:

"While the evidence did not reveal any violation of ... JCPS rules, I am extremely troubled—actually I am outraged—by the statement made that day by head coach Jason Stinson—that the running would end when someone quit the team. While this kind of negative motivation may be used in some amateur and even professional sports, that kind of culture has absolutely no place in JCPS' athletic programs."

The superintendent established an annual seminar that trains coaches not to motivate their players the way Stinson did that day. Stinson has attended it twice. Now, at the roadhouse, when asked to acknowledge that the seminar is a result of what he did on Aug. 20, 2008, he seems genuinely unaware of the connection. And if this is hard to believe, consider the story he gave in his civil deposition about a brief encounter with Max Gilpin after Max had finished the running that killed him.

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