Early on the morning of Aug. 1, I was relaxing in my dorm room on the Western Illinois campus when a teammate knocked on the door and delivered horrible news: Korey Stringer had died of complications resulting from heat stroke.
My first thoughts were about his family, and I vowed to put them in my prayers. Then I went to practice, where the same Midwestern heat wave that had struck down Korey was waiting for me and my teammates. In temperatures that would reach the mid-90s, I proceeded to do what I always do during training camp: sweat up a storm, push my body to the brink of exhaustion and suck it up until the last bullhorn sounds.
I didn't think of Korey once during that practice. You can't. You do, and you lose your concentration. I don't mean to sound callous, but I can't change my approach. Sure, something like that can happen to anyone at any time, but most football players choose not to think about it. We do what we have to do to get prepared for the season, and practicing in the heat is one of those things.
We play a rough game, and none of us in the NFL got this far by being cautious with our bodies. One reason I do what I do is that I'm willing to sacrifice and work when things are hard -- whether I'm hot, hurt or fatigued. I take pride in my ability to plow through discomfort; that's what makes me a football player. It's the mentality I adopted while growing up in Webb City, Mo., and carried with me to Nebraska, where I learned to thrive in August heat waves and November cold.
Make no mistake, this has been a dreadful summer for football. My heart goes out to the families of Eraste Autin, the Florida freshman who died after collapsing from heat stroke on July 25, and of Rashidi Wheeler, the Northwestern senior who succumbed to an asthma attack during practice last Friday. Still, I don't think this was anything more than a calamitous chain of coincidences.
The days of coaches running practices like boot camps are over. We take plenty of breaks, and no one gives us a hard time for pausing to take a drink of water. It's true that when a guy sits out practice, you tend to give him a little grief. But players aren't stupid. We've all hit the wall, and when we see that someone can't go any longer, we know when to lay off.
In the days since the news about Korey broke, hundreds of people who don't play football have said the same thing to me: "It's hot out there. Are you guys doing anything differently because of what happened?" The answer is no. We'll just keep charging forward, full steam ahead.
Issue date: August 13, 2001
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