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How To Prevent Heat-Related Illness In Young Athletes


It's September, which means high school football, soccer and other sports are already in full swing in much of the country. And while there's been a lot of talk about playing safely because of the COVID pandemic, we want to focus on another critical health issue for these players - heatstroke. Heat illness during practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among high school athletes. That's according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it's likely to become a bigger issue as extreme heat becomes more common across the country. That invites the question of what's being done to protect players.

Our next guest became immersed in this subject for the most painful reason. Marty McNair is the father of Jordan McNair, who played football at the University of Maryland. In 2018, his then-19-year-old son, Jordan, collapsed during practice after showing signs of heat exhaustion. He died two weeks later. Marty McNair now travels across the country working to prevent heat strokes in young players, and he is with us now. Mr. McNair, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARTY MCNAIR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I do want to say I'm so sorry for the death of your son. And I know it's painful, but I could just - if I could just ask you to remind us of what happened with Jordan the day he collapsed at practice.

MCNAIR: The very first day of conditioning drills, they were running gassers. And gassers are when you run the length of the football field 10 times within a very, very short window of time. So Jordan was running a gasser. He started to overheat right around maybe, like, between the fifth and sixth gasser. He started to go down around the seventh, the seventh lap, in a sense. When he got into the ER, we - basically, his core temperature was above 106 degrees. And we literally went from a healthy kid Tuesday morning to an emergency liver transplant Friday morning with 85% of his liver being necrosis, and life has changed totally since then. Jordan passed with a week after that. So it was probably a two-week fight for his life, and we've been advocating ever since.

MARTIN: Whew. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. But I do want to say that, you know, after Jordan's death, an ESPN investigation into that particular football program, it reported just a fairly toxic environment, like intimidation, verbal abuse, forcing players to eat until they threw up. Do you think that this is that particular program, or do you think that these kinds of behaviors are common?

MCNAIR: Well, I believe those type of behaviors were common just in football alone. I do think that that coaching staff at that particular time did have a heightened sense of toxic masculinity, in a sense. And I, like so many other parents or every parent in America, I was only interested in two things. Can he play? And why isn't he playing? I never thought to ask, you know, in any sports program he played in and obviously at a D1 college level, I never thought to ask, you know, what type of emergency action plans or what type of safety systems that they had in place in the event of. But most importantly, if I could - in hindsight, I taught Jordan everything except listen to your body. And if you feel uncomfortable around an adult or a coach or anything a coach asks you to do and you're not comfortable doing, please speak up.

MARTIN: In recent years, there's been a lot of talk about concussion protocols and safety protocols around physical - around hits, right? Now, of course, there's been a lot of discussion around COVID 19 safety protocols.

MCNAIR: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: But there is very little conversation, it seems to me, at least until you started it, around heat. And as climate change occurs and the climate does - in fact, we are seeing hotter days, record heat earlier in the year in places that never experienced extreme heat before. I'm just wondering, why do you think we aren't talking more about heat?

MCNAIR: I get so many calls from places like Denver, Colo., or places like - so many - Utah and places where the heat never really was a factor. And basically, what this looks like is nobody's used to it. And the thing is, if they've never experienced it, that's their first time experiencing it, so they may not even know exactly what these signs look like. And most importantly, they have to have emergency action plans. Well, what's the purpose of having an emergency action plan if you don't utilize it? Guess what? It's not a matter of what's going to happen. It's the matter about will you be prepared for when it happens?

MARTIN: Do you feel that change is occurring? Do you think that there's more awareness?

MCNAIR: I think that at the collegiate level, Jordan's death brought a lot of attention or a lot of awareness to programs because I think that that was just commonplace to run those type of drills. And I think a lot of college programs made the difference, but now it's really the AAU and the high school programs that we're really looking for to make a difference as well.

MARTIN: That was Marty McNair. He is the founder of the Jordan McNair Foundation. Mr. McNair, I thank you so much for talking with us today, and, again, my condolences on the loss of your son and my appreciation to you for your continued work.

MCNAIR: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.