This Saturday about 80 members of the Minnesota Vikings—stars, starters, reserves and here-today-gone-tomorrow camp fodder—will trot onto the field at Minnesota State University-Mankato for the first day of preseason practice. The weather will likely be hot and humid but probably no worse than at many other NFL camps. The scene at this campus about 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities will, in fact, look pretty much the same as it did on July 31, 2001, the second full day of camp, the day when offensive lineman Korey Stringer basically baked to death, a heartless, cloudless day of high temperatures, a day when the regional National Weather Service warned of "potentially life-threatening conditions," and other advisories suggested that cattle be moved out of the sun.
Yet it won't be the same. For the first time a doctor will be on the field for every minute of practice, and each player will have been evaluated in a precamp conditioning test. As the Vikings work out, trying to rebuild after a dispiriting 5-11 season that ended with the firing of coach Dennis Green, thoughts will unavoidably turn to Stringer, a 27-year-old gentle giant who was coming into his own as a tackle and is now remembered as the first heatstroke fatality in NFL history. Perhaps a player will look as if he's dogging it, and a coach will be less inclined than he was last year to shout out a derogatory comment, as Stringer's line coach, Mike Tice, now Minnesota's head coach, is alleged to have done to drive Stringer harder. Perhaps a Viking will show signs of heat-related illness, dropping to one knee and then collapsing to the ground, as Stringer did last July 31, near the end of a 2�-hour full-pads practice, and coaches will be a little quicker than they were last year to tell him to skip the rest of the drill. Perhaps a player will head toward the air-conditioned cool-down trailer for relief, as Stringer did, and the trainers will glance nervously at each other and call for a team doctor quicker than they did last year.
A full year after the tragedy Stringer's specter will also loom over the Minnesota camp in the form of a $100 million lawsuit filed by his wife, Kelci, and his family. The suit charges gross negligence and malpractice in Stringer's death and names as defendants not only the Vikings but also Tice, Green, trainer Chuck Barta, training camp doctor David Knowles and Fred Zamberletti, the team's director of medical services. The case has heightened the bitterness between Kelci Stringer and her late husband's team and raised new questions about the events of last July 31. If the suit goes to trial, the Vikings and the NFL will have to relive a tragedy that has haunted them for the past 12 months.
Had the Vikings acceded to Kelci's demands and accepted a proposal made by Stringer's Cincinnati-based agent, Jimmy Gould, two days after Stringer died, it is unlikely there would have been a lawsuit. Gould asked the Vikings to pay the approximately $8 million in nonguaranteed money from the remaining two years of Stringer's contract (the team was contractually obligated to pay the $2.85 million due him for the 2001 season); create an education fund for four-year-old Kodie, the couple's only child; concede that mistakes were made in treating Stringer's heat-related illness; and promise that changes would be instituted. But a couple of weeks after Gould made that proposal, he got a call from Minnesota vice president Mike Kelly. "Red's not going for it," Kelly told him, referring to Vikings owner Red McCombs. It was only after that phone call, says Gould, that he and Kelci discussed a lawsuit.
Kelci says that she feels "angry, sad, everything in between but mostly disappointed" by how the Vikings and the NFL have dealt with her husband's death. Last Aug. 1, as Kelci mourned at a neighbor's house in the Twin Cities, only two representatives of the team's front office—McCombs's daughter, Marsha Shields, who had no official position with the Vikings at the time, and Chad Ostlund, McCombs's assistant—showed up to offer condolences. She felt snubbed by commissioner Paul Tagliabue at Korey's Aug. 3 memorial service. "I didn't even know he was there until someone told me later," she says.
The team denies that it shunned her, pointing out that on Nov. 19—a week after she announced her intention to file suit—she was among the guests in the Metrodome when the Vikings retired Korey's number 77 jersey in a halftime ceremony during a Monday-night game against the New York Giants. During that ceremony, McCombs (who is not named in the suit) went over to Kelci on the field and embraced her.
If the case is not settled, the two sides could end up in a nasty courtroom battle over everything from NFL training camp practices to the Minnesota weather. Barta, the team trainer, said in his deposition that just before practice began at 8:45 a.m. on July 31, he calculated the heat index in Mankato as 88� based on a formula he got from the Internet. But almost six hours earlier the National Weather Service had estimated that by midday the heat index would reach 105 to 110 across southern and central Minnesota, and by 11 that morning the service was describing conditions as "dangerously hot and humid" and warning of "potentially life-threatening conditions." Paul DeMarco, a plaintiffs' attorney, says he will present documentation of a "feels-like temperature" (which takes into account the effect of direct sunlight) of 136� at 11 a.m.
The plaintiffs' lawyers will also talk about the 336-pound Stringer's predisposition toward heat illness. During at least two previous Minnesota camps, in 1998 and 2000, he had shown signs of heat exhaustion and been given IV fluids. Though Stringer had vomited five times on the first day of practice and according to Kelci, who spoke to him by phone, he was sweating profusely that evening in bed, he was never hooked to an IV. According to depositions, at least two other Vikings players, as well as Zamberletti, the 69-year-old medical-services director, received IV fluids on the 31st.
For their part, the Vikings might raise the possibility that Stringer was using supplements containing ephedra, the herbal form of the stimulant ephedrine, which has been found to cause life-threatening conditions, including thermo-regulatory disorders, strokes, seizures and heart arrhythmia. Though a postmortem toxicology report showed no traces of the substance in the player's bloodstream, two bottles of supplements containing ephedra were found in Stringer's locker in the hours after his collapse. Last September, while denying that the move had been prompted by Stringer's death, the NFL banned the use of ephedrine and ephedra.
The case might ultimately hinge on what happened, or didn't happen, in the air-conditioned trailer that Stringer entered at 11:25 a.m., about 15 minutes after he collapsed on the field. A timeline constructed by SI from the depositions of five people who had contact with Stringer after he left the field shows that he was in the trailer for about 45 minutes, from about 11:25 a.m. until about 12:10 p.m. It was during that time that his condition deteriorated.