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8 Upper

Sudden Death

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/8/2001

Glad news, football fans! The University of Florida is ranked No. 1 in the first preseason coaches' poll. The coaches, in their collective judgment, have concluded that the death of fullback Eraste Autin doesn't hurt the Gators' prospects for the 2001 season. Autin, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound freshman, died of heatstroke July 25, six days after he collapsed following a 50-minute workout on an 88-degree afternoon.

The loss of one scholar-athlete--even one who was supposed to contend for a starting job--isn't enough to derail the Florida program. Quite the opposite. "At the family's urging," the Associated Press reported, "[coach Steve] Spurrier went to Orlando for a previously scheduled engagement at a Gators booster rally, and did not attend a news conference to discuss the death." The coach did, however, make time later in the week to give a eulogy at Autin's funeral in Louisiana, telling the bereaved that their dead hometown hero had "made a lasting impression."

Funerals are, almost by definition, occasions for saying nice things that aren't so. The top-ranked Gators will put a black patch or something on their uniforms, maybe point heavenward a few extra times after scoring touchdowns. And maybe, if it's third and goal from the 1 against Florida State, Spurrier will wish he still had Autin around. But football is bigger than Eraste Autin. It's surely bigger than Indiana high schooler Travis Stowers, who dropped dead shortly after Autin, or Northwestern strong safety Rashidi Wheeler, who died this past weekend. It's bigger even than the Minnesota Vikings' 335-pound All-Pro tackle Korey Stringer, whose death--in the same 10-day span as the other three--moved the training-camp carnage onto the front page of the newspapers.

Football is so big, you don't even have to be playing for it to kill you. None of the four dead were doing anything even resembling actual football-playing. They were busting their asses in the summer heat, because that's what you're supposed to do before football season starts. It's as if instead of dying on the highways, American motorists were getting blown up at the gas pump, or drowning in the drive-through car wash. Anyone who wasn't directly drawing a paycheck from the football-industrial complex recognized at once that the deaths were pointless, and said so.

But what is the lesson here? That football players need to drink more water? That's about the best the reformers have to offer. Players need to be more closely supervised and nursed through their training. They need to be taught not to let macho pride or macho fear get in the way of what's best for their health.

Football chuckles at this. Football is pride and fear, wrapped in generations' worth of accumulated stupidity and brutality. The reformers might as well suggest players switch to archery or bowling. Perhaps football will go ahead and let the players get their hydration checked; heck, as the windbags who Played the Game never get tired of saying, coaches didn't used to let you drink water at all. You sucked it up and you were a man and . . . wait, where were we? Oh, yeah, and it's a damn shame these kids had to die.

Korey Stringer tried to drink water, but he kept throwing it up. His body temperature was just under 109 degrees. There was a basic bioengineering principle at work: As a body gets larger, its mass increases faster than its surface area. This is why elephants have huge ears, to add surface area and help vent their body heat. A 335-pound man is basically a 220-pound man wrapped in 120 pounds of insulation. He hasn't had time to evolve a cooling system.

Ten years ago, on his way to his deathbed, Lyle "The Animal" Alzado confessed to having relied on steroids throughout his career as a man-mountain defensive lineman. Linemen are now 40 pounds, 50 pounds, 100 pounds heavier than they were in Alzado's '70s heyday. The Minnesota Vikings' quarterback is bigger than Lyle "The Animal" Alzado. Football doesn't care where all this bulk is coming from, or what it does to the men who carry it around. Maybe they do need to drink more water.

There is a perverse integrity to training camp. It's football with all the distracting fun taken out of it, football reduced to pure mindless sadism and corruption. Stringer's ordeal, struggling through stamina drills in the hot sun, barely resembled his actual job on the football field. Rashidi Wheeler died of an asthma attack, 2,000 yards into a 2,160-yard series of sprints--a "voluntary" workout, with the Wildcats coaches scrupulously staying away from the field, in obedience to NCAA restrictions on formal practices.

But the dead are only part of the story. More of it is told in 100-word nuggets, buried inside the sports section. Herman Moore's shoulder is separated. Tiki Barber has a broken hand. Rookie Santana Moss, who was supposed to save the Jets with his glorious speed, tore knee cartilage on an Astroturf practice rug; he will come back sometime this fall, a little less speedy, without having played a down of football. Leon Searcy tore the quadriceps tendon in his knee--and could barely fit inside the MRI machine to have his injury diagnosed.

And even this is nothing next to the mass of college and high-school players: 18-year-old concussion victims, 16-year-olds with blown knees, each year's new crop of paralytics and heat fatalities. If football answered to logic or morality, the waste and suffering could never be excused. But football answers only to football.

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