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High school football season comes with heat risks. How do the coaches, athletic trainers keep players safe?
Jason Nierenhausen
Gainesville High athletic trainer Jay Nierenhausen checks the wet bulb globe temperature before football practice Wednesday at the Bruce Miller Field. The wet bulb globe temperature is used under Georgia High School Association guidelines to determine practice limitations. - photo by Bill Murphy | The Times

The sweltering August heat in Georgia makes coaching high school football complicated. With a recent extreme heat wave, 2019 hasn’t been any different than years before.

Player safety and well-being is the biggest priority, but with the clock ticking down to put the final touches on preparation before the first games on Aug. 23, difficult decisions have to be made.

“It’s very annoying,” first-year East Hall coach Michael Perry said about trying to prepare a football team to play in near-record heat. “Here in Georgia, we’re playing football too early.”

With a heat index Tuesday that was 105 in Gainesville, Perry preemptively decided to practice before school to get the most instructional time in with players, while also complying with the wet bulb globe temperature guidelines — the standard used by the Georgia High School Association for outdoor football practice. 

With slightly cooler temperatures Wednesday, Perry slated the Vikings for an afternoon practice. The high temperature Wednesday was cooler than the day before, but Perry said it’s always front and center in his mind to keep an eye on all his players with the help of his training staff. 

For the new East Hall coach, it comes down to doing what is best for the players. But the lack of rhythm with afternoon practice all in the hands of Mother Nature can be frustrating for everyone involved.

“My guide is that I’m not going to ask any of my players to do anything on the field that I wouldn’t ask one of my own family members to do,” said Perry. 

His solution is to wait until after Labor Day to start the season, giving a bit of reprieve from extreme daytime heat when players are weighted down with protective gear before and after kickoff. 

Perry isn’t on an island by himself with concerns about an early start to the season.

“I don’t think we should play until after Labor Day,” West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery said.

Neither is aware of any efforts to move back the start date for the regular season in the future.

To fall in line with a later start to the football season, the Spartans’ coach thinks practice shouldn’t commence until Aug. 1, allowing for a sustained acclimation period to get used to being outdoors in the heat.

Since he doesn’t make the rules, Perry said extended water breaks in the shade and icewater baths at the end of practice go a long way to combating the summer sting and also helping to lower the body temperature when the day is done. 

The wet bulb globe temperature is the combination of wet temperature for humidity, globe temperature for radiant heat and ambient air for dry temperature, a reading that must be taken 30 minutes before practice starts and every hour after, per GHSA guidelines. 

At Gainesville High, athletic trainer Jay Nierenhausen took to the Bruce Miller practice field Wednesday and peered into the device that resembles a fancy camera mounted to a tripod and gives the exact specifications of the wet bulb globe temperature, as mandated by the state’s high school athletics governing body. 

Called the Questemp 34 Thermal Environmental Monitor, Nierenhausen is able to check the afternoon reading that will determine whether there is football practice. The veteran athletic trainer takes the afternoon’s first reading of 89.2, which falls in range for two-hour practice with only shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, and relays that to his coaches. 

Anything above 92 on the wet bulb globe temperature means that no outdoor practice can be conducted. 

Still, regular interaction with players during practice is essential to preventing a heat-related illness. 

“We’re taking every precaution we can for player safety,” Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones said.

Despite some concerns about the state’s heat and humidity policy for football, Montgomery said the GHSA has made some welcome changes, such as longer water breaks during games. 

Gainesville’s training staff knows all the warning signs and is vigilant about monitoring players during practice. 

“The first thing we look for is players cramping, experiencing dizziness and seeing spots,” said Nierenhausen. “We also look to see if they’re lethargic or exhibit any change in demeanor.”

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