The Legacy of Korey Stringer

August 02, 2009

At least for now,Kodie Stringer is a scaled-down model of his father, Korey. "My [husband's]Mini-Me," as his mother, Kelci, puts it. At age 11, growing at the rate ofa magic beanstalk—today he stands 5'9", 240 pounds, but next month?—Kodiehas the same habit of humming as his dad and an equal ambivalence towardfootball. Kodie, too, is an offensive lineman. He, too, is very good at it.(High school scouts buzzing around Atlanta's youth fields have Kodie on theirradar.) But the game is not his identity. "Sometimes Kodie wants to be anartist and open an art gallery," Kelci says. That perspective was in hisfather's DNA too. I remember Korey during his rookie year in 1995 when I wasthe Vikings beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and hearing him say,"Other jobs [outside the NFL] are important too."

Which career pathwill Kodie pick? Kelci has given her son the freedom to choose in spite of herinternal dissonance. "Of course, there are fears," she says. On Aug. 1it will be eight years since Korey died of multiple organ failure caused byheatstroke, after collapsing during a Vikings practice on a day when the heatindex at 11:30 a.m. was 99°. "I try to block out the date, to behonest," says Kelci. "I wake up on August 2 and think, O.K., August 1was yesterday."

She is determinedto make the past have meaning, though. Through nearly eight years of litigationto gain some accountability for her husband's death, Kelci foughtdisillusionment and frustration at times as she worried whether the essence ofher husband—the Renaissance man, the kind spirit—would be lost in the hail oflegal documents. (A wrongful death suit against the Vikings was thrown out; amalpractice suit against the coordinating doctor at the team's trainingfacility was settled in 2003.) What was his legacy? A sense of claritymaterialized last January when the NFL settled a wrongful death suit in whichKelci claimed the league hadn't done enough to ensure that equipment wouldprotect players from heatstroke. It was a victory for the butterfly versus thewindshield. Terms were not disclosed except for one significant detail: The NFLagreed to work with Kelci to create heat-illness prevention programs that willtrickle down from the pros to Pop Warner. Or maybe they should pour down.

"I'll neverforget it," says Kelci. "Kodie came home from practice [last summer]and said, 'Oh, Mom, we didn't have water today.' I'm trying not to be thespooked widow mother, but I asked a coach, 'Why didn't he have water?' Youwouldn't believe what he said to me: 'Why didn't you give him any?' I'mthinking, How many other coaches think this too?"

In many religionswater is holy. In football theology it's a sin. To need water is a weakness. Tofeel thirst is noble. This Shakespearean act of H[subscript 2]O's good againstits evil continues to unfold. On Aug. 31 former high school coach Jason Stinsonwill go on trial in Louisville for reckless homicide in the heatstroke death ofMax Gilpin, a 15-year-old sophomore who was one of two players to collapseafter an especially brutal football practice on Aug. 20, 2008. Stinson haspleaded not guilty, and his defense team is ready to tell jurors that he didnothing to cause Gilpin's death. Reportedly, in court records, some playershave described the following scene: With a heat index of 94°, an angry Stinsonpunished the Pleasure Ridge Park High players for a sluggish practice byforcing them to run gassers for more than 30 minutes even as one vomited andtwo others cried, pushing them relentlessly and, according to witnesses whospoke to the Louisville Courier-Journal, denying some of them water.

Here's the firstpriority for the NFL in its new campaign: Strip the General Patton complex fromcoaches at every level who think of two-a-days in August as a bugle call tobattle while trainers believe such a schedule is double trouble. "The coachis the gatekeeper," says Kelci. "I'm not a woman against football—Ilove it all—I'm just for being smarter. It's simple: Give them water."Kelci's home is actually a shrine to electrolyte replacement. "I'm known asthe Gatorade Mom," she says. So if you ask her, Is it in you?, the answeris yes—and then some. In her house it surrounds you, with cases of liquids inevery corner. "After Korey passed away, it was my own thing to ask, How didthis happen?" Kelci says. "I mean heatstroke? Who dies ofheatstroke?"

She is keenlyaware of the stats now. In the past decade, according to the National Centerfor Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there have been 28 heatstroke deaths infootball. In 2008 Gilpin was one of six to die. "[Over the years] I'd hearfrom people who would say, 'Oh, my God, did you see the story of the playerwith [heatstroke]?'" says Kelci. "It got to the point where I said,'O.K., what do I do?' I saw [the cause] in my own son."

Part of Kodie'sburden is being known as the child whose dad died in the NFL. Kelci haspersevered to make sure that death wasn't in vain. It turns out the legacy ofKorey Stringer will not be buried in litigation. It has emerged from a lawsuitas a living, fluid message just as the football calendar flips to August: Forplayers of every age, it's downright manly to drink up.

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The NFL agreed to work with his widow, Kelci, to createheat-illness prevention programs that will trickle down from the pros to PopWarner.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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