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The Boy Who Died of Football
Thomas Lake
December 06, 2010
Three days after he collapsed from heatstroke at practice in 2008, 15-year-old Max Gilpin became one of at least 665 boys since 1931 to die as a result of high school football. Here's what made his case different: The Commonwealth of Kentucky tried to prove Max's coach had a hand in killing him
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December 06, 2010

The Boy Who Died Of Football

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So the boys limped out for more punishment. Players who collapsed from heat exhaustion had to crawl to the sideline or be dragged off by student assistants. When a boy fell face-first to the ground from heatstroke, Bryant kicked his fallen body. Sure enough, he ran off all the quitters. Seventy-six boys quit during those 10 days, and another 10 were too badly hurt to play in the opener. The Aggies went 1--9 that season, but two years later they went undefeated and finished fifth in the national rankings. The survivors of Bryant's hell camp discovered that nothing in life could stop them. They became doctors, lawyers, engineers, chief executives. By the time of their team reunion 25 years later, many were millionaires.

In the genealogy of football coaches, you can draw a line from Bear Bryant straight down to Jason Stinson. Bryant begat Howard Schnellenberger (he played tight end for the Bear at Kentucky in the 1950s and served as his assistant coach at Alabama from '61 to '65), and Schnellenberger coached Stinson at Louisville in the early 1990s. In '89 Schnellenberger recruited a lineman named Thomas Sedam. According to Sedam, water was never available at practices. Schnellenberger, who declined to comment for SI, made his boys run gassers, just as Bryant had and Stinson would, and when thirsty players took mouthfuls of the ice that was kept to cool down injuries, coaches forced them to spit it out. One day Sedam collapsed from heatstroke after running too much. He spent almost a month in the hospital and later sued Schnellenberger for negligence. They settled out of court.

After Louisville, Schnellenberger went to Oklahoma. He resigned at the end of a mediocre season during which two players quit because of heat illness. One of them, defensive tackle Brian Ailey, nearly died of heatstroke. He filed his own lawsuit, but Schnellenberger said water was not restricted at his practices, and a federal judge threw the case out for lack of evidence. According to a 1996 Tulsa World story, "Schnellenberger dismissed Ailey's incident as unfortunate but insisted his coaching techniques were not out of line. He points out that he had been doing business like that for years." Schnellenberger, who coached Miami to a national championship in 1983, is still doing business, at 76, as coach at Florida Atlantic.

Sedam played for Schnellenberger before Jason Stinson did; Ailey played after. You might expect Stinson to tell stories similar to theirs. He will not. He says the coach was demanding but never abusive and always provided sufficient water at practice. He says he would play for Schnellenberger again. And if this is hard to understand, remember that the Junction Boys—that is, the ones who survived Junction—would almost certainly play for Bear Bryant again. They wore those 10 days like a badge of honor for the rest of their lives. Jason Stinson says his father made him a man. But when Stinson left the care of Howard Schnellenberger, he considered himself even more of a man.

In the '60s at Southern High in Louisville there was another football coach who didn't believe in injuries. When a player broke his thumb and said, "Coach, I broke my thumb," and it was all swollen and purple, the coach told him to spit on it and get back in the game. Around that time a boy named David Stengel decided to tend his horses instead of attending the coach's unofficial spring practice, and when the coach punished him that fall by giving him old equipment and shoes that didn't fit, David quit.

Nearly 50 years later, after David Stengel became Louisville's chief prosecutor, after he had Jason Stinson indicted for the death of Max Gilpin, he would say Stinson reminded him of his old football coach. And when Stengel got e-mails from around the world telling him what a "sissy" he was, going after a football coach for doing nothing but coaching football, well, Stengel begged to differ. In his younger days he could bench-press 370 pounds, and he kept a picture of the Mohawk OV-1A in which he flew 127 combat missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including one in which he was shot down. Football is a pale imitation of war. Sissy? David Stengel would love to see you walk through this door and say that.

About a month after the fatal practice, under questioning by the police, Coach Stinson made a casual remark that explains quite a lot about Max Gilpin's collapse. "Now, but Max is the kind of kid," he said, "if you don't see him, you wouldn't notice him." Even though he was 6'2" and 216 pounds, Max was not a commanding presence. He could be almost invisible. And visibility made a crucial difference on that sweltering afternoon.

The boys were allowed to run at their own pace, but they had an incentive to run as hard as they could. It went beyond merely impressing the coaches. If Stinson noticed a boy giving extraordinary effort, he might dismiss him from the running and let him cool off in the shade. One of the team's best runners was Antonio Calloway, a safety who also sprinted for the track team, and Antonio ran angry that day. First he was angry at the other boys for goofing off, and then he was angry at Stinson for not rewarding him with a license to quit. At some point the soccer spectators heard a horrible sound, something deep and strange and very loud, which turned out to be Antonio Calloway gasping for breath. His reward for blind obedience was a precautionary trip to the hospital.

The boys ran on. They took turns. The smaller players ran while the big boys (including Max) rested, and then they switched. Most players agree that Max ran hard, but there is a wide range of stories about how the running affected him. Some say he had no trouble breathing. Others say he vomited, fell to his knees, struggled for breath. There were many reports of players vomiting, and one boy said he heard others crying. None of this was enough to make Stinson call off the drill. "If we stop the drill every time somebody got hurt," he said later in a deposition for the wrongful-death suit filed by Max's parents, "we wouldn't have any drills left to do."

MICHAEL COOPER, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: Well, let's say that we have players, one or more, that are vomiting—

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