A few years ago I was asked to co-author Kelci Stringer’s memoir about the life and death of her husband, NFL All-Pro tackle Korey Stringer. Korey was the first and only NFL player to die from actions on the field.
Today is the 10th anniversary of Korey’s untimely death at the age of 27. When people die young, it angers me, and Korey’s death is no exception, for it was so darn unnecessary. Korey died of heat stroke, an entirely preventable malady that takes numerous lives each and every year.
I am also angered by the lies and misconceptions behind his death, many which have still not been cleared up sufficiently over the past ten years.
First off, Korey, a huge NFL offensive tackle, was not technically overweight. His weight was typical and remains typical for a player at his position. Korey had a weight clause in his contract, a clause that gave a specific range, both bottom and top. Korey showed up for training camp in 2001 at the very lowest end of that contractual weight range. Had he weighed any less, he would have been in breach of contract.
Team doctors who knew him and examined him many times before, proclaimed him “in the best shape of his life,” when he showed up for camp a few days before.
It has been rumored that Korey was using weight loss supplements and that was the true cause of his death. Yet when he was autopsied, there were no traces of these supplements in his system.
The supplements he was accused of taking were perfectly legal, sold in every health food store in America, and available to anyone who desired them. The day after Korey died, an empty bottle of supplements was “found” in his locker, and became the story the Vikings, his team, floated to the media. The problem with this story, in addition to Korey’s clean autopsy report, was why would Korey come to camp with weight loss supplements when he was already at his lowest allowable contractual weight? It made no sense.
The heat index in Mankato, MN, site of the Vikings training camp, broke records the first two days of practice, yet the team went out in full gear. Since Korey’s death, these sorts of things simply do not happen anymore. Korey’s death changed the way teams looked at heat, saving the lives of countless other athletes.
After practice number one, Korey was vomiting from the heat, as were others. Upon post-practice examination from team doctors and trainers, Korey was quite obviously suffering from heat exhaustion, a precursor to deadly heat stroke. No one suffering from heat exhaustion should ever be sent out in full football gear the very next day to exert themselves some more. Today, because of Korey’s death, such things no longer happen. But in 2001, Korey was sent on his way.
This situation was exacerbated by a photographer having taken a picture of Korey vomiting on day one. Korey’s position coach posted the photo and made a point of ridiculing Korey in front of the entire team. Korey Stringer was bullied by his employer to step out onto the field the next day, the last day of his life, despite the fact that medically he should not have. It is no different than sending someone out to run 10 miles on a broken leg. Common sense tells you it’s a bad idea and a formula for disaster.
(The photo used to humiliate Korey Stringer)
Korey spent much of the day of his death staggering around the field like a drunken man, unresponsive to questions or directions, due to his elevated body heat. He should have been pulled off the field he should have never been on, yet the offensive linemen actually stayed on the field longer and practiced after others had already been dismissed to the air-conditioned locker room.
It has been said Korey was “too macho” and “should have taken more personal responsibility for his health and safety.” Once practice started, Korey’s body temperature was so high, he had no idea what was even going on. If you saw a man on foot, weaving around in the middle of a busy highway, would you do something or say something? That was Korey Stringer on the day of his death–too sick to help himself. Yet no one else, no teammates, no coaches, no doctors, no trainers, got him out of the path of oncoming traffic. Korey wasn’t being macho. Korey was too feverish to even know where he was.
When he finally collapsed, he was taken to a trainer’s station. All the real doctors and trainers were gone. All that was left was one, poor, slightly-trained intern.
Korey’s body temperature was 108. But no one knew that at the time because the Vikings’ medical station had no thermometer!
Next to the first aid station was a man-sized tub of ice and water. Had Korey been placed into the tub and his suffocatingly heavy equipment cut off, he may have lived, even at this late a point. But no one knew to do it. Disease and cure were inches away from one another, yet no one put them together. Instead, Korey’s vital organs were boiling to death.
Precious moments went by and Korey remained on the field. 911 was never called.
The young intern finally got one of his superiors to return his frantic calls and Korey was eventually driven to the hospital. How much was known about heat exhaustion and heat stroke by the person left in charge of the entire Vikings team on the hottest day in Mankato history? When asked if he noticed Korey had turned pale, the young white man said, “I don’t know what a black person looks like when they’re pale.”
The day Korey Stringer died was a day when everything went wrong. Despite fighting any suggestions of responsibility for years and years after his death, literally the day after August 1, 2001, every NFL team reconfigured its protocols for heat-related injuries. If you wonder why there have been no Korey Stringer incidents in the NFL since, that is why. The preventions were always there, the knowledge was always there; someone simply had to care enough to execute them.
For nearly a decade, Kelci Stringer fought to get the truth out and to make sure those preventions were kept in place in the NFL, as well as passed along to the college, high school, and pre-high school levels, where other young men have died since due to similar negligence. Korey and Kelci’s legacy is the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, funded by Kelci’s settlement with the NFL. The Institute is the leading advocate for heat injury prevention. They are also delving into other areas facing athletes, such as the effect of concussions and repetitive head injuries.
Kelci Stringer is a hero, and Korey a martyr. It is impossible to count exactly how many young men and women are alive today because of preventions put in place due to Korey’s untimely demise. Today is a sad day, but a day where the passing of one young man will perhaps continue to change the athletic landscape for the better.
Rest in Peace, Big K. And God bless you, Kelci, for fighting the good fight.