Minnesota bids farewell to college football pioneer Sandy Stephens
Before Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, Sandy Stephens paraded in Pasadena. Stephens, who died on June 6 at age 59, led Minnesota to the football national tide in 1960 and to victory in the Rose Bowl the next season—the same one in which he became the first black All-America quarterback. As such Stephens blazed a trail that would be followed by the likes of Warren Moon and Steve McNair and made Minnesota a place to go if you were an aspiring black signal-caller. "I wanted to play quarterback," said Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, who did just that for the Golden Gophers from 1973 to '76, "and I knew that Minnesota had pretty much set the trend."
At a time when segregation in the South and bigotry in the North kept blacks from calling the plays for whites, Gophers coach Murray Warmath took a chance on Stephens, a four-sport star from Uniontown, Pa. The experiment wasn't an immediate success. Stephens debuted as a sophomore in 1959, and when Minnesota went 2-7, irate fans hung Warmath in effigy outside the players' dorm. But Stephens's teammates rallied behind him. "He was full of self-confidence, and players responded to that," says Gophers interim athletic director Tom Moe, a receiver on the '59 team. Warmath, too, stuck by his man, in whom he saw not just a natural born leader but also, at 6 feet and 215 pounds, one tough lad. "He wouldn't put up with any abuse," Warmath says. "It would've taken one hell of a guy to threaten him."
Stephens's college heroics never translated into success as a pro. He played briefly for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL and subsequently held jobs in banking, real estate and social work. Recently he served as an analyst on Minnesota football broadcasts, and for the past several years he had been preparing a book on the significance of his college football experience. Even if that book never makes it to print, Stephens's legacy will endure. Said Al Nuness, a black who captained the Gophers' basketball team in the late 1960s, "Every African-American who wanted to be a quarterback looked up to Sandy Stephens. He's a legend among black athletes."
Imagine Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez crouching behind the plate in the ninth inning of a sweltering August game but feeling as fresh as he did in the first inning. Or Devils defenseman Scott Stevens skating in the second overtime as though the game has just begun. Or a marathoner breaking the tape, looking to the clock and glimpsing the impossible: 1:59.
Thanks to new technology that regulates body temperature through a water-filled pouch inside a hard plastic shell that can be worn like a glove, such athletic flights of fancy could soon take off. Designed by Stanford animal physiologists Dennis Grahn and Craig Heller, who were looking to treat hypothermia more efficiently, the passive heat exchanger may redraw the limits of physical activity—a notion Grahn accepts, though hesitantly. "We are barely in the initial stages of testing," he says. "If anything, we're in the look-what-we-found stage."
What they've found is a means of removing exercise-induced heat from the body and thereby dramatically reducing the decline in an athlete's performance. "We're discovering that for someone who's physically fit, performance during prolonged exercise is affected much more by heat-related exhaustion than by metabolic exhaustion," Grahn says. "It's been a bit shocking."
The original device's shell created a vacuum that drew blood to the palm. A heated pad then warmed the blood and sent it rushing to the heart, quickly heating the body's core. While blankets and hot air might warm a hypothermic patient's body in three or four hours, the glove could do so in 15 minutes. "The palm and soles of the feet are our body's primary dumping grounds for internal heat," says Grahn. Warm the blood at these points, and the body warms quickly thereafter. "Then we found we could reverse the effect, cooling the body by replacing the heating pad with lukewarm water."
Some of their test subjects were patients of Stanford colleague Michael Dillingham, who's also the 49ers' team physician. He asked the researchers if the heat-extraction technology could be used by athletes. To find out, Grahn and Heller recruited lab assistant Vinh Cao, a weightlifter, as a subject. Every three days over a six-week span, Cao, 33, would do nine sets of pull-ups, resting for three minutes between each set. As expected, his performance decreased with each set, from an average first-set high of 14 reps to an average ninth-set total of seven. But when the cooling device was used for three minutes after the ninth set, Cao could do as many pull-ups as he had done in the first set. In a subsequent long-term test, Cao improved his average set from 14 pull-ups to 44. "It amazes me every time I think about it," says Cao.