The safer season was a surprise since 21 players died from heatstroke between 1995 and 2001, an average of three a year, said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of exercise and sport science in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences.
"We have been concerned because heat-related deaths are either entirely or almost entirely avoidable," Mueller said. "Fatalities like these often meant someone forgot to emphasize or practice what we and others have been reminding coaches and trainers about for years. Players should get all the water they want in practice and have frequent cooling-off breaks to prevent these tragedies."
No heatstroke deaths have been recorded yet during the 2003 season either, but practices across the nation are just now getting underway, he said.
Five players died during 2002 as a direct result of injuries suffered on the field, including three in high school, one in youth football and one in a semi-professional New York league. All five fatalities came following severe head injuries.
"Ten others died in ways not directly tied to the game but more from natural causes provoked by vigorous exercise," Mueller said. "Five happened among high school students, four were in college and one boy was participating in youth football. Of the 10, eight deaths came from heart-related causes, one from asthma and one was undetermined."
Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee of Football Injuries, directs the UNC-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. Each year, the center produces reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.
Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States collected and submitted by about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"We found eight cases of permanent disability from catastrophic injuries in football last year, including six from neck and two from head injuries," Mueller said. "At least 12 other major injuries occurred, but in those cases the players recovered completely."
Coaches need to remind players often that the head has no place in football, he said. No one should make first contact with his -- or her -- head when blocking and tackling. That's against the rules, but more importantly, it's dangerous.
In 1968, 36 young men died after injuries in practices or in games. Mueller said, but not a single death directly attributable to football occurred in 1990. The drop in "direct" football deaths resulted from rule changes adopted in 1976 that prohibited using the head as the first point of contact while blocking and tackling.
Shorter practices and non-contact drills during which players don't wear helmets can help prevent heatstroke and reduce accidents, he said. Players should be allowed as much water as they wish, and coaches should schedule regular cooling-off breaks.
Coaches and trainers ought to keep a close eye on temperature and humidity, especially in August and September, Mueller said. Practices can be held early or late in the day, and if it's too hot, coaches need to consider canceling them for a day or so until temperature and humidity drop.
"Players must be encouraged to tell adults if they don't feel good," he said. "They should never ever be made to feel unmanly or weak if they are having trouble. Although many coaches used to do that and thought it was the right thing, now we understand that's a potentially deadly prescription for disaster. We have all the tools and knowledge to prevent heatstroke fatalities."
Eight players died from heatstroke in 1970, the highest one-year total, he said. Before 1955, no heatstroke deaths were recorded among football players, he said. Few schools and homes had air conditioning, and thus it is likely players were better acclimated to hot weather.
Mueller and other experts strongly recommend pre-practice physical examinations for boys -- and the small number of girls -- who want to play football. Such exams sometimes reveal hidden conditions that make heavy exertion hazardous. Parents should make sure their children are insured against catastrophic injury and that medical assistance is available during practices and games.
"We especially want parents to be involved in their sons and daughters' athletic teams so that they can help guarantee that proper precautions are being taken to reduce injuries and deaths," he said. "New York passed legislation a couple of years ago that every school should have a defibrillator on hand at games and practices, but since the machines are expensive, more research is needed before we could say that ought to happen in all states."
A Yale University faculty member began the yearly football death and injury survey in 1931. It moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC since 1965. The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor the study to make the game safer.
About 1.5 million junior high school and high school students play football in the United States each year. Colleges and universities field about 75,000 players.
By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services
Note: Mueller can be reached at 919-962-5171