SI Vault
Jack McCallum
July 29, 2002
A year after star lineman KOREY STRINGER succumbed to heatstroke, the Vikings open camp facing new scrutiny over how they handled his on-field collapse
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July 29, 2002

A Question Of Life And Death

A year after star lineman KOREY STRINGER succumbed to heatstroke, the Vikings open camp facing new scrutiny over how they handled his on-field collapse

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Throughout most of that period, he was with Paul Osterman, a 22-year-old assistant trainer. According to Osterman's deposition, he found Stringer lying unattended on the field—the other offensive linemen were continuing a blocking drill under Tice's supervision a few yards away—and suggested he get up and go to the trailer. Once inside the 62� trailer, Osterman and Stringer didn't talk much. Stringer spent most of the 45 minutes lying on the floor. For a while he hummed to himself and bobbed his head, and then he was quiet When Osterman told him that a golf cart had arrived at 11:52 to take him to the main trainer's room in the nearby Taylor Center, standard procedure when a player in the trailer is not feeling well, Stringer was, by Osterman's description, "unresponsive." That, said Osterman, was the first time he noticed that something was wrong.

Up to that point the only way Osterman had ministered to Stringer was to give him a few sips of water, remove (at Stringer's request) his shoes and socks and try to apply an ice towel to Stringer's forehead, which the player pushed aside. He did not take Stringer's temperature; the trailer, in fact, did not even have a medical thermometer. "I really wasn't sure what was going on at that point," Osterman said in his deposition. "I was pretty confused."

Dan Kearney, a student intern trainer, took the cart to get Zamberletti, who arrived at the trailer at 11:57. According to his deposition, Zamberletti thought that Stringer was hyperventilating—the player was panting—and put a Ziploc bag over his face in an attempt to stabilize his breathing. It didn't work, and Zamberletti told Osterman to call Knowles, the training camp doctor. Zamberletti theorized that Stringer had "just fainted" or had a seizure as a result of "an insect bite" or "some medication." Osterman then called an ambulance, which arrived at 12:09. When Stringer got to Immanuel-St. Joseph's Hospital at 12:24, his body temperature was 108.8�, and he may have been beyond help. He died about 13 hours later, after his internal organs shut down one by one.

The Vikings have repeatedly denied legal culpability. In a January letter to Tagliabue laying out the team's position, Kelly wrote, "We believe we ran an excellent training camp that was at or beyond the standards in the league. Korey showed amazingly few signs of injury until it was too late, and persons who knew him well for years were unable to detect anything to suggest that a health crisis was at hand."

The Vikings say that they emphasized to players the importance of staying properly hydrated. Like his teammates, Stringer was present for an evening meeting last July 29 about that very topic. As for the specifics of what happened on July 31, the team will not comment. "We have a lot of respect for the memory of Korey Stringer, and that's why we are not engaging in a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges," James O'Neal, the Vikings' lawyer, told SI.

O'Neal did point to a report from Minnesota's Occupational Safety and Health Division (that state's version of OSHA) concluding that "no provisions of the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Act or its standards were violated by the Vikings during July 30 and 31, 2001." The plaintiffs, however, will likely note that the report only covers events up to 11 a.m. on the morning of the 31st, meaning that it does not address the particulars of what happened in the trailer; that the report deals with workplace issues and not medical procedures; and that it recommends that the Vikings adopt several measures to combat the effects of heat and humidity.

The Vikings said last week that they would implement those measures, which include recording temperature and humidity readings at practices; putting all players in white jerseys (Stringer and the rest of the offensive players wore purple ones on July 31); and providing shade for players to stand in during rest periods. (The Vikings will put out large umbrellas for this purpose, a practice they began at a minicamp earlier this year.)

The lawsuit also raises the issue of how hard a coach should push one of his players. It charges that Tice called Stringer "a big baby" for his repeated vomiting on the first day of practice, which ended early for Stringer when he walked to the trailer and was given fluids to drink. On the next day, the lawsuit alleges, Tice "taunted, mocked and humiliated" Stringer after a newspaper photo showing the giant tackle, bent over and burdened by the heat, made the rounds at Mankato.

Tice has strongly denied taunting Stringer. "I never, ever, in the five years I coached Korey Stringer, yelled at him," Tice told reporters at the NFL meetings in March. "He wasn't the kind of player who took to the yelling." ( Tice last week declined an interview request from SI, citing the ongoing lawsuit.) Before the 2001 camp opened, Tice told reporters that he had high expectations for Stringer for the upcoming season. The free-agent exits of left tackle Todd Steussie, left guard Randall McDaniel and center Jeff Christy over the previous two years had left the once-formidable Minnesota line in tatters, and Tice wanted Stringer, who had played in his first Pro Bowl in February 2001, to be the role model, the leader, the bell cow, as coaches so often put it.

Stringer took Tice's challenge with deadly seriousness. In the last phone call he made to his wife, after practice on July 30, he told her that even though he hadn't been able to stop vomiting, he was proud that he had not been taken off the field in a golf cart, as he had been in previous camps. He told her he was not unduly worried about the effects of weight loss—he had lost six pounds on the first day, not unusual for players, especially ones of Stringer's size, in summertime NFL camps. When the newspaper photo showing him in distress made the rounds at Mankato the next day, he was said by teammates to have been mortified, all the more determined to stay vertical and fight off the ravaging effects of the heat.

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