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At least for now, Kodie Stringer is a scaled-down model of his father, Korey. "My [husband's] Mini-Me," as his mother, Kelci, puts it. At age 11, growing at the rate of a magic beanstalk—today he stands 5'9", 240 pounds, but next month?—Kodie has the same habit of humming as his dad and an equal ambivalence toward football. Kodie, too, is an offensive lineman. He, too, is very good at it. (High school scouts buzzing around Atlanta's youth fields have Kodie on their radar.) But the game is not his identity. "Sometimes Kodie wants to be an artist and open an art gallery," Kelci says. That perspective was in his father's DNA too. I remember Korey during his rookie year in 1995 when I was the Vikings beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and hearing him say, "Other jobs [outside the NFL] are important too."
Which career path will Kodie pick? Kelci has given her son the freedom to choose in spite of her internal dissonance. "Of course, there are fears," she says. On Aug. 1 it will be eight years since Korey died of multiple organ failure caused by heatstroke, after collapsing during a Vikings practice on a day when the heat index at 11:30 a.m. was 99°. "I try to block out the date, to be honest," says Kelci. "I wake up on August 2 and think, O.K., August 1 was yesterday."
She is determined to make the past have meaning, though. Through nearly eight years of litigation to gain some accountability for her husband's death, Kelci fought disillusionment and frustration at times as she worried whether the essence of her husband—the Renaissance man, the kind spirit—would be lost in the hail of legal documents. (A wrongful death suit against the Vikings was thrown out; a malpractice suit against the coordinating doctor at the team's training facility was settled in 2003.) What was his legacy? A sense of clarity materialized last January when the NFL settled a wrongful death suit in which Kelci claimed the league hadn't done enough to ensure that equipment would protect players from heatstroke. It was a victory for the butterfly versus the windshield. Terms were not disclosed except for one significant detail: The NFL agreed to work with Kelci to create heat-illness prevention programs that will trickle down from the pros to Pop Warner. Or maybe they should pour down.
"I'll never forget it," says Kelci. "Kodie came home from practice [last summer] and said, 'Oh, Mom, we didn't have water today.' I'm trying not to be the spooked widow mother, but I asked a coach, 'Why didn't he have water?' You wouldn't believe what he said to me: 'Why didn't you give him any?' I'm thinking, How many other coaches think this too?"
In many religions water is holy. In football theology it's a sin. To need water is a weakness. To feel thirst is noble. This Shakespearean act of H[subscript 2]O's good against its evil continues to unfold. On Aug. 31 former high school coach Jason Stinson will go on trial in Louisville for reckless homicide in the heatstroke death of Max Gilpin, a 15-year-old sophomore who was one of two players to collapse after an especially brutal football practice on Aug. 20, 2008. Stinson has pleaded not guilty, and his defense team is ready to tell jurors that he did nothing to cause Gilpin's death. Reportedly, in court records, some players have described the following scene: With a heat index of 94°, an angry Stinson punished the Pleasure Ridge Park High players for a sluggish practice by forcing them to run gassers for more than 30 minutes even as one vomited and two others cried, pushing them relentlessly and, according to witnesses who spoke to the Louisville Courier-Journal, denying some of them water.
Here's the first priority for the NFL in its new campaign: Strip the General Patton complex from coaches at every level who think of two-a-days in August as a bugle call to battle while trainers believe such a schedule is double trouble. "The coach is the gatekeeper," says Kelci. "I'm not a woman against football—I love it all—I'm just for being smarter. It's simple: Give them water." Kelci's home is actually a shrine to electrolyte replacement. "I'm known as the Gatorade Mom," she says. So if you ask her, Is it in you?, the answer is yes—and then some. In her house it surrounds you, with cases of liquids in every corner. "After Korey passed away, it was my own thing to ask, How did this happen?" Kelci says. "I mean heatstroke? Who dies of heatstroke?"
She is keenly aware of the stats now. In the past decade, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there have been 28 heatstroke deaths in football. In 2008 Gilpin was one of six to die. "[Over the years] I'd hear from people who would say, 'Oh, my God, did you see the story of the player with [heatstroke]?'" says Kelci. "It got to the point where I said, 'O.K., what do I do?' I saw [the cause] in my own son."
Part of Kodie's burden is being known as the child whose dad died in the NFL. Kelci has persevered to make sure that death wasn't in vain. It turns out the legacy of Korey Stringer will not be buried in litigation. It has emerged from a lawsuit as a living, fluid message just as the football calendar flips to August: For players of every age, it's downright manly to drink up.