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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
On the day Max Gilpin ran himself to death before nearly 140 witnesses, he did almost nothing but what he was told. He began complying an hour before dawn, when he stumbled out of bed at his father's command, and he continued through the morning and afternoon behind the brick walls of his school as the August sun parched the valleys of Kentuckiana. After school he surrendered to the will of his football coach, a man he loved as he loved his father, and he hoped this surrender would be enough to please them both.
This is a story about obedience, the kind that gives football and religion their magnetic power. Max Gilpin was an obedient boy. He was, to borrow a word from his adoring mother, a pleaser, and if he misbehaved, he had four parents to set him straight. They had family meetings, four against one, mother and stepfather and father and stepmother. Max's mother told him to obey his stepmother, and his father told him to obey his stepfather. So he did. And although he hated the Adderall pills—although they flattened his personality, made him smile less, made him want to hurl them off the deck into the backyard—he took them, usually, because they also made him stare at the teacher instead of the ceiling fan.
Max had a girlfriend named Chelsea Scott, a cheerleader with green eyes and shining auburn hair. They were sophomores at Pleasure Ridge Park High in Louisville, and they'd been a couple barely 48 hours. It should have been much longer, but Max couldn't muster the courage to ask her out. Fortunately Chelsea was a modern woman. Since the end of their freshman year she had kept a picture of Max on her phone, with the caption MY BABY, and over the summer, on MySpace, she had asked for and received his cell number. Still he needed encouragement. Finally Chelsea wrote Max a love note, delivered by her best friend, and he understood. That was Monday. Today was Wednesday. He had never taken Chelsea on a date. Instead they commiserated in the halls between periods, and Max complained about football.
In middle school Max's mother, Michele, struggled with Max to put his pads on. He was on the verge of quitting until Michele (head cheerleader, Western High) called his father, Jeff, and put Max on the line, and when the conversation was over, Max was no longer quitting. He did manage to sit out for a couple of years, but at the start of high school Max told his father he was going to play football. And his father (offensive lineman, Butler High) taught him power cleans and leg presses and rhythmic breathing. He bought Max protein shakes, and his mother bought him the muscle-building substance creatine. Max tried to quit again that year, but his parents talked him out of it, and gradually he came to embrace football. By August 2008, just after his 15th birthday, he stood 6'2" and weighed 216 pounds. He had gained about 26 pounds in six months and had begun wearing sleeveless shirts to show off his muscles.
One thing stood in the way of Max Gilpin and football greatness. Football demands a certain brutality, a hunger to smash the other guy's face, and Max had no such hunger. He liked to fix things—decks, porch swings, BMX bikes—and he talked about opening a mechanic's shop on Miami Beach. He didn't want to smash anything, even though he was an offensive tackle and his job was knocking people down. The coaches told him to get angry, get mean, use that helmet, quit being so nice. Max tried very hard, and his father saw him improving by the day, but he had a long way to go. In practice, as the linemen took turns facing off to improve their skills, Max stepped aside and let others go in front of him. His girlfriend from freshman year said Max was a true Christian, and this sounds about right. If Jesus had played football, He might have played like Max Gilpin.
Max's football coach also believed in Jesus and lived his life in relentless pursuit of heaven. His name was Jason Stinson, and he sat in the balcony on Sunday mornings at Valley View Church in southwest Louisville with a bible called God's Game Plan on a lap whose wide expanse would barely fit between the door and the center console of his Toyota Camry. Coach Stinson was 6'4" and 300 pounds, and he had been such a fearsome offensive lineman at Louisville that he got an NFL tryout with the Giants before being cut in the preseason of 1996. Now he was 35 years old, with a wife and two children, and he saw the 104 boys on the Panthers' football team as sons of a different kind. They came to him for money when they couldn't afford lunch, counsel when their girlfriends turned up pregnant, new shoes when their old ones wore out. And although his coaching job paid only $20 a day on top of his salary as a Web design teacher, he never turned them away, because he knew God was watching. The coach liked to say he wasn't making football players; he was making good daddies, good citizens, good taxpayers. So he was more surprised than anyone when his conduct at football practice on Aug. 20, 2008, became the subject of one of the largest investigations in the history of the Louisville Metro Police Department.
It was a miserable practice. The temperature hit 94º that day, and the boys, after staying up late all summer, came in exhausted from a new routine that had them out of bed long before sunrise. Around 5:30 that afternoon, after team stretching and individual drills, Coach Stinson called the 22 varsity starters to join him near the center of the field. This is how he remembers it:
"Offense, huddle up!" he said. "Defense, put your skivvies on!" (Skivvies in this case were jerseys of an alternate color.) The boys either ignored him or didn't hear.
"OFFENSE, HUDDLE UP! DEFENSE, PUT YOUR SKIVVIES ON!"