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A Question Of Life And Death A year after star lineman KOREY STRINGER succumbed to heatstroke, the Vikings open camp facing new scrutiny over how they handled his on-field collapse

July 29, 2002
July 29, 2002

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July 29, 2002

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A Question Of Life And Death A year after star lineman KOREY STRINGER succumbed to heatstroke, the Vikings open camp facing new scrutiny over how they handled his on-field collapse

By Jack McCallum With Reporting by Lester Munson

This Saturday about 80 members of the Minnesota Vikings--stars,
starters, reserves and here-today-gone-tomorrow camp
fodder--will trot onto the field at Minnesota State
University-Mankato for the first day of preseason practice. The
weather will likely be hot and humid but probably no worse than
at many other NFL camps. The scene at this campus about 90
miles southwest of the Twin Cities will, in fact, look pretty
much the same as it did on July 31, 2001, the second full day of
camp, the day when offensive lineman Korey Stringer basically
baked to death, a heartless, cloudless day of high temperatures,
a day when the regional National Weather Service warned of
"potentially life-threatening conditions," and other advisories
suggested that cattle be moved out of the sun.

This is an article from the July 29, 2002 issue Original Layout

Yet it won't be the same. For the first time a doctor will be on
the field for every minute of practice, and each player will
have been evaluated in a precamp conditioning test. As the
Vikings work out, trying to rebuild after a dispiriting 5-11
season that ended with the firing of coach Dennis Green,
thoughts will unavoidably turn to Stringer, a 27-year-old gentle
giant who was coming into his own as a tackle and is now
remembered as the first heatstroke fatality in NFL history.
Perhaps a player will look as if he's dogging it, and a coach
will be less inclined than he was last year to shout out a
derogatory comment, as Stringer's line coach, Mike Tice, now
Minnesota's head coach, is alleged to have done to drive
Stringer harder. Perhaps a Viking will show signs of
heat-related illness, dropping to one knee and then collapsing
to the ground, as Stringer did last July 31, near the end of a
2 1/2-hour full-pads practice, and coaches will be a little
quicker than they were last year to tell him to skip the rest of
the drill. Perhaps a player will head toward the air-conditioned
cool-down trailer for relief, as Stringer did, and the trainers
will glance nervously at each other and call for a team doctor
quicker than they did last year.

A full year after the tragedy Stringer's specter will also loom
over the Minnesota camp in the form of a $100 million lawsuit
filed by his wife, Kelci, and his family. The suit charges gross
negligence and malpractice in Stringer's death and names as
defendants not only the Vikings but also Tice, Green, trainer
Chuck Barta, training camp doctor David Knowles and Fred
Zamberletti, the team's director of medical services. The case
has heightened the bitterness between Kelci Stringer and her
late husband's team and raised new questions about the events of
last July 31. If the suit goes to trial, the Vikings and the NFL
will have to relive a tragedy that has haunted them for the past
12 months.

Had the Vikings acceded to Kelci's demands and accepted a
proposal made by Stringer's Cincinnati-based agent, Jimmy Gould,
two days after Stringer died, it is unlikely there would have
been a lawsuit. Gould asked the Vikings to pay the approximately
$8 million in nonguaranteed money from the remaining two years
of Stringer's contract (the team was contractually obligated to
pay the $2.85 million due him for the 2001 season); create an
education fund for four-year-old Kodie, the couple's only child;
concede that mistakes were made in treating Stringer's
heat-related illness; and promise that changes would be
instituted. But a couple of weeks after Gould made that
proposal, he got a call from Minnesota vice president Mike
Kelly. "Red's not going for it," Kelly told him, referring to
Vikings owner Red McCombs. It was only after that phone call,
says Gould, that he and Kelci discussed a lawsuit.

Kelci says that she feels "angry, sad, everything in between but
mostly disappointed" by how the Vikings and the NFL have dealt
with her husband's death. Last Aug. 1, as Kelci mourned at a
neighbor's house in the Twin Cities, only two representatives of
the team's front office--McCombs's daughter, Marsha Shields, who
had no official position with the Vikings at the time, and Chad
Ostlund, McCombs's assistant--showed up to offer condolences.
She felt snubbed by commissioner Paul Tagliabue at Korey's Aug.
3 memorial service. "I didn't even know he was there until
someone told me later," she says.

The team denies that it shunned her, pointing out that on Nov.
19--a week after she announced her intention to file suit--she
was among the guests in the Metrodome when the Vikings retired
Korey's number 77 jersey in a halftime ceremony during a
Monday-night game against the New York Giants. During that
ceremony, McCombs (who is not named in the suit) went over to
Kelci on the field and embraced her.

If the case is not settled, the two sides could end up in a
nasty courtroom battle over everything from NFL training camp
practices to the Minnesota weather. Barta, the team trainer,
said in his deposition that just before practice began at 8:45
a.m. on July 31, he calculated the heat index in Mankato as
88[degrees] based on a formula he got from the Internet. But
almost six hours earlier the National Weather Service had
estimated that by midday the heat index would reach 105 to 110
across southern and central Minnesota, and by 11 that morning
the service was describing conditions as "dangerously hot and
humid" and warning of "potentially life-threatening conditions."
Paul DeMarco, a plaintiffs' attorney, says he will present
documentation of a "feels-like temperature" (which takes into
account the effect of direct sunlight) of 136[degrees] at 11 a.m.

The plaintiffs' lawyers will also talk about the 336-pound
Stringer's predisposition toward heat illness. During at least
two previous Minnesota camps, in 1998 and 2000, he had shown
signs of heat exhaustion and been given IV fluids. Though
Stringer had vomited five times on the first day of practice and
according to Kelci, who spoke to him by phone, he was sweating
profusely that evening in bed, he was never hooked to an IV.
According to depositions, at least two other Vikings players, as
well as Zamberletti, the 69-year-old medical-services director,
received IV fluids on the 31st.

For their part, the Vikings might raise the possibility that
Stringer was using supplements containing ephedra, the herbal
form of the stimulant ephedrine, which has been found to cause
life-threatening conditions, including thermo-regulatory
disorders, strokes, seizures and heart arrhythmia. Though a
postmortem toxicology report showed no traces of the substance
in the player's bloodstream, two bottles of supplements
containing ephedra were found in Stringer's locker in the hours
after his collapse. Last September, while denying that the move
had been prompted by Stringer's death, the NFL banned the use of
ephedrine and ephedra.

The case might ultimately hinge on what happened, or didn't
happen, in the air-conditioned trailer that Stringer entered at
11:25 a.m., about 15 minutes after he collapsed on the field. A
timeline constructed by SI from the depositions of five people
who had contact with Stringer after he left the field shows that
he was in the trailer for about 45 minutes, from about 11:25
a.m. until about 12:10 p.m. It was during that time that his
condition deteriorated.

Throughout most of that period, he was with Paul Osterman, a
22-year-old assistant trainer. According to Osterman's
deposition, he found Stringer lying unattended on the field--the
other offensive linemen were continuing a blocking drill under
Tice's supervision a few yards away--and suggested he get up and
go to the trailer. Once inside the 62[degree] trailer, Osterman
and Stringer didn't talk much. Stringer spent most of the 45
minutes lying on the floor. For a while he hummed to himself and
bobbed his head, and then he was quiet. When Osterman told him
that a golf cart had arrived at 11:52 to take him to the main
trainer's room in the nearby Taylor Center, standard procedure
when a player in the trailer is not feeling well, Stringer was,
by Osterman's description, "unresponsive." That, said Osterman,
was the first time he noticed that something was wrong.

Up to that point the only way Osterman had ministered to
Stringer was to give him a few sips of water, remove (at
Stringer's request) his shoes and socks and try to apply an ice
towel to Stringer's forehead, which the player pushed aside. He
did not take Stringer's temperature; the trailer, in fact, did
not even have a medical thermometer. "I really wasn't sure what
was going on at that point," Osterman said in his deposition. "I
was pretty confused."

Dan Kearney, a student intern trainer, took the cart to get
Zamberletti, who arrived at the trailer at 11:57. According to
his deposition, Zamberletti thought that Stringer was
hyperventilating--the player was panting--and put a Ziploc bag
over his face in an attempt to stabilize his breathing. It
didn't work, and Zamberletti told Osterman to call Knowles, the
training camp doctor. Zamberletti theorized that Stringer had
"just fainted" or had a seizure as a result of "an insect bite"
or "some medication." Osterman then called an ambulance, which
arrived at 12:09. When Stringer got to Immanuel-St. Joseph's
Hospital at 12:24, his body temperature was 108.8[degrees], and
he may have been beyond help. He died about 13 hours later,
after his internal organs shut down one by one.

The Vikings have repeatedly denied legal culpability. In a
January letter to Tagliabue laying out the team's position, Kelly
wrote, "We believe we ran an excellent training camp that was at
or beyond the standards in the league. Korey showed amazingly few
signs of injury until it was too late, and persons who knew him
well for years were unable to detect anything to suggest that a
health crisis was at hand."

The Vikings say that they emphasized to players the importance
of staying properly hydrated. Like his teammates, Stringer was
present for an evening meeting last July 29 about that very
topic. As for the specifics of what happened on July 31, the
team will not comment. "We have a lot of respect for the memory
of Korey Stringer, and that's why we are not engaging in a
point-by-point rebuttal of the charges," James O'Neal, the
Vikings' lawyer, told SI.

O'Neal did point to a report from Minnesota's Occupational
Safety and Health Division (that state's version of OSHA)
concluding that "no provisions of the Minnesota Occupational
Safety and Health Act or its standards were violated by the
Vikings during July 30 and 31, 2001." The plaintiffs, however,
will likely note that the report only covers events up to 11
a.m. on the morning of the 31st, meaning that it does not
address the particulars of what happened in the trailer; that
the report deals with workplace issues and not medical
procedures; and that it recommends that the Vikings adopt
several measures to combat the effects of heat and humidity.

The Vikings said last week that they would implement those
measures, which include recording temperature and humidity
readings at practices; putting all players in white jerseys
(Stringer and the rest of the offensive players wore purple ones
on July 31); and providing shade for players to stand in during
rest periods. (The Vikings will put out large umbrellas for this
purpose, a practice they began at a minicamp earlier this year.)

The lawsuit also raises the issue of how hard a coach should
push one of his players. It charges that Tice called Stringer "a
big baby" for his repeated vomiting on the first day of
practice, which ended early for Stringer when he walked to the
trailer and was given fluids to drink. On the next day, the
lawsuit alleges, Tice "taunted, mocked and humiliated" Stringer
after a newspaper photo showing the giant tackle, bent over and
burdened by the heat, made the rounds at Mankato.

Tice has strongly denied taunting Stringer. "I never, ever, in
the five years I coached Korey Stringer, yelled at him," Tice
told reporters at the NFL meetings in March. "He wasn't the kind
of player who took to the yelling." (Tice last week declined an
interview request from SI, citing the ongoing lawsuit.) Before
the 2001 camp opened, Tice told reporters that he had high
expectations for Stringer for the upcoming season. The
free-agent exits of left tackle Todd Steussie, left guard
Randall McDaniel and center Jeff Christy over the previous two
years had left the once-formidable Minnesota line in tatters,
and Tice wanted Stringer, who had played in his first Pro Bowl
in February 2001, to be the role model, the leader, the bell
cow, as coaches so often put it.

Stringer took Tice's challenge with deadly seriousness. In the
last phone call he made to his wife, after practice on July 30,
he told her that even though he hadn't been able to stop
vomiting, he was proud that he had not been taken off the field
in a golf cart, as he had been in previous camps. He told her he
was not unduly worried about the effects of weight loss--he had
lost six pounds on the first day, not unusual for players,
especially ones of Stringer's size, in summertime NFL camps.
When the newspaper photo showing him in distress made the rounds
at Mankato the next day, he was said by teammates to have been
mortified, all the more determined to stay vertical and fight
off the ravaging effects of the heat.

"Korey and Mike Tice needed each other," says Kelci. "Mike
promised him the kind of accolades that would get him into the
Pro Bowl if Korey helped [forge a strong offensive line] that
would get Mike a head job. It was a lot more pressure. It was a
lot more serious." Gould will argue that Tice was "intentionally
trying to drive Stringer's tolerance for pain to a new level."
His mouth figuratively taped by the lawsuit, Tice cannot defend
himself against that charge.

Kelci Stringer will continue living in the Twin Cities, but
perhaps only until her lawsuit is resolved. "At some point," she
says of the Vikings, "you've got to step up and say, 'O.K., we
screwed up and here's how.'"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILLY ROBIN MCFARLAND IN TROUBLE As his linemates drilled, the overheated Stringer went to one knee, then dropped onto his back. COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS BUCK/CORBIS OUTLINE BIG FUTURE The Vikings had great expectations for the 336-pound Stringer, who was coming off his first Pro Bowl.COLOR PHOTO: JIM MONE/AP STRICKEN At a memorial service, teammate Randy Moss struggled to come to terms with the loss of his close friend.
STRINGER'S CONDITION WORSENED AFTER HE ENTERED THE
AIR-CONDITIONED TRAILER, WHERE AN ASSISTANT TRAINER, BY HIS OWN
ADMISSION, DID NOT REALIZE THAT THE TACKLE WAS SUFFERING FROM
HEATSTROKE
THE LAWSUIT ALLEGES THAT TICE, WHO IS NOW THE VIKINGS' HEAD
COACH, "TAUNTED, MOCKED AND HUMILIATED" STRINGER OVER A
NEWSPAPER PHOTO SHOWING THE PLAYER THROWING UP AT PRACTICE