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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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Those boys demanded attention, and Stinson gave it to them. He called them away from the group and supervised them in a drill called up-downs, which involved running in place and then dropping to the ground and then running in place some more. Even at this they performed badly, which, according to the court transcript, led the coach to say something like, "We're gonna do 'em right or we're gonna do 'em until somebody quits." Today the coach says that this statement might have been misconstrued as applying to all the players, including the ones still running gassers. He claims to have said at the beginning of gassers, "If you don't want to do what we're asking you to do, please feel free to quit. We'll still be friends, we'll still high-five you in the hallway, but you can't play football." All this may be true, but there is a loose consensus that the boys running the gassers believed Stinson was telling them to keep running until someone quit the team.

Which someone did.

Now, a word about quitting. Stinson believed that if you quit in practice, you wouldn't just quit in the fourth quarter. You would quit in life. Bear Bryant actually wanted the boys to quit—that is, he wanted the quitters to quit—but Stinson, despite appearances, actually wanted to keep them. If they stayed on the football team, he kept his leverage. He could make sure they made good grades and behaved in class. He could keep trying to mold them into good daddies, good citizens, good taxpayers. And if they really did quit—if they called his bluff—he lost that leverage. Which is why he tried to bring them back. A player named David Englert had quit three times, and Stinson always talked him into returning. Sure enough, he was in the up-down group, the incorrigible group, and sure enough, he quit again. And sure enough, a few days later he was back on the team. (Not long after that, he quit for the last time.) Later he wrote Stinson a letter that read, in part, "You have always been there for me in everything I do. I haven't been able to sleep for the past couple of days, I walk around with a lump in my throat.... I love you.... Please pray for me as I pray for you."

Jason Stinson didn't believe in quitting on anyone. After all, Jesus never quit on the dying thief.

But there is another way to see David Englert, and in this light he needs neither mercy nor forgiveness. What he deserves is a round of applause. "I congratulated the child for quitting the team," a soccer spectator named Timothy Moreschi testified at Stinson's trial. "I said, 'You're the only man out on that field.'"

Take a moment now to go with Max Gilpin as he runs the last mile of his life.

Early in the running, before the damage is irreversible, he can look to the right through the face mask of his steaming helmet and see his father watching him. And this sight must give him the courage to run harder. Max is a pleaser, remember, and he wants to make his father proud. His father played lineman too, for Butler High, class of '80, and Butler won the Kentucky Class 4A championship his senior year. But his father quit football before that season and missed his chance at immortality.

Max has a shot at starting for the jayvee, and what he lacks in meanness he can try to make up in determination. At a scrimmage just last Friday, his father saw him take on a powerful defensive end from another school and play better than he'd ever played: "Max shut this kid down. He knocked him down two or three times. He turned him. He got under him. This kid never made another tackle or another play that I saw. In fact, Max played so well that they put him on defense. He's never played defense on a high school level. He didn't even know the plays. They just told him to go for the ball."

Later, when presented with Jeff Gilpin's account of that scrimmage, Stinson will refuse to confirm it. ("Didn't see it happen, didn't hear about it and didn't have any film to review.") Which will leave two ways to interpret the story. Either Jeff Gilpin is imagining things or Coach Stinson is oblivious. And both possibilities leave Max with the same mandate. Either he must close the gap between his actual performance and his father's vision of his performance, which means he must work even harder; or he must play so surpassingly well that Coach Stinson finally takes notice—which means he must work even harder.

Like most sons, Max regards his father with a blend of love and fear. Jeff will later say Max was his best friend. He will talk about driving Max to guitar lessons, about missing the way Max laughed so deeply that his eyes nearly shut. And while both Jeff and Michele want Max to go to college, Max would rather be an auto mechanic just like his father. But in other ways Max is nothing like Jeff. There is some indication that Jeff is capable of violence and coercion. In 1999, when Max was five and his parents had separated, Jeff was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after allegedly punching and bruising his live-in girlfriend. (Records of the case's outcome are no longer on file at the courthouse.) Max's stepmother, Lois Gilpin, will later say Jeff used to slap Max on the back of the head and drag him around by the ear. Jeff will deny all this, but Lois will not be the only one to say Max saw Jeff as a bully. She and Katlin Reichle, who dated Max during freshman year, will say Jeff monitored Max's performance at football practice and, if Max didn't play well enough, left him there and made someone else pick him up. Lois will say Jeff sent Max text messages to express shame in Max's performance. Katlin will say Max told her, "I'm trying my best, but I don't know what more I can do."

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