Junction Boys Syndrome - Patrick Hruby
Junction Boys Syndrome

There’s no good reason for college football workouts to be dangerous, let alone fatal. But too many are.
By Patrick Hruby | The Guardian | August 2018
When Scott Anderson learned that University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair had died in June following a spring workout, he was saddened – but not surprised. The head athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma, Anderson has spent roughly two decades studying deaths in college football, coming to a sobering conclusion.

The sport is needlessly and heedlessly killing athletes with overly intense workouts.

“Unfortunately, [Jordan McNair’s] story is not unfamiliar,” Anderson says.

“February through July should not be deadly months for college football players. But they are. Non-traumatic deaths should not outnumber traumatic deaths. But they do.

“I don’t think anybody can look at that and not say it’s wrong, and that something needs to be fixed.”

During an outdoor workout on 29 May, McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, showed signs of extreme exhaustion and had trouble standing upright after a series of long sprints. He subsequently was hospitalized with exertional heatstroke – a potentially fatal condition in which the body overheats, typically brought on by strenuous exercise – and died on 13 June.

Maryland has since parted ways with strength coach Rick Court, who oversaw the workout, and placed head coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave. While a school investigation is ongoing, multiple reports indicate that university personnel likely could have saved McNair’s life by properly treating his symptoms, and that the school’s coaching staff fostered a culture of fear, intimidation, and abuse. Maryland president Wallace D Loh personally apologized to McNair’s family and said that the university accepts both legal and moral responsibility for his death.

While Maryland’s institutional mea culpa was unusual, McNair’s death was not. University of Maine defensive back Darius Minor collapsed and died of a heart condition in July during an informal team workout. According to Anderson’s research, 33 NCAA football players died playing the sport between 2000 and 2016, an average of two per season. Six of those deaths were traumatic, the result of injuries caused by collisions. The rest were non-traumatic, the result of intense exercise. All but one of the non-traumatic deaths occurred during the offseason.

To put things another way: college players are four and a half times more likely to die training for football than actually practicing or playing it.

Like their campus counterparts, National Football League players need to be strong fast, and fit. Yet since 2001, only one NFL player has died from a workout – former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer, whose heatstroke death during training camp led the league to alter practice protocols and teach trainers to recognize and properly treat symptoms. There’s no good reason for college football workouts to be dangerous, let alone deadly.

But they are. Athletes are asked to do too much, too fast, for too long, performing workouts that are untethered from both the sport’s demands and basic principles of exercise science. Too many college coaches use offseason workouts as a tool for developing mental and emotional toughness – as a way to inflict physical pain and suffering, the better to push the limits of what their players are willing and able to endure.

Given football’s brutal nature, this almost understandable. But it’s also dumb. Anderson has a name for it: “Junction Boys Syndrome,” a reference to the famous – and infamous – preseason training camp held by former Texas A&M University football coach Bear Bryant in 1954 that featured scorching temperatures, punishing, day-long practices and no water breaks. The ordeal was later documented in a book and made into an ESPN movie, and its antiquated, Darwinian attitude toward conditioning – weed out the weak with sadistic workouts, so that the strong can survive and win – remains alive and well today.

According to ESPN and the Washington Post, Court threw small weights and other objects at Maryland players and mocked and belittled them when they were unable to complete weight lifts or workouts. A former Terrapin player also told ESPN that Court made an injured teammate engage in a tug-of-war with the team’s entire defensive back unit until he passed out, while multiple sources claimed that after McNair finished a sprint with two teammates holding him upright, school athletic trainer Wes Robinson yelled, “Drag his ass across the field!”

Maryland isn’t an outlier. In January of last year, three University of Oregon football players were hospitalized for several days after workouts that reportedly included up to an hour of continuous push-ups and up-downs. Sixteen years earlier, Northwestern University defensive back Rashidi Wheeler died from asthma after collapsing during an offseason conditioning test that consisted of 10 100-yard, eight 80-yard, six 60-yard, and four 40-yard sprints with minimal rest between sets, covering far more distance in far less time than ever required in a football game.

After University of Central Florida receiver Ereck Plancher died from exertional sickling – a potentially fatal condition caused by excessive exercise for individuals with sickle-cell trait – following a 2009 offseason workout, an outside attorney hired by the university reviewed the school’s conditioning activities and found that they were “within the range normal to other Division I football programs.”

“These type of workouts don’t develop skill, and they’re not representative of what it takes to play the game,” Anderson says. “We don’t see heatstroke in football games, ever. We don’t see exertional sickling in football games, ever. But we see them in the offseason. If we’re seeing it in our training and not seeing it in the sport, something is wrong with our training.”

The good news, Anderson says, is that dangerous workouts can be made safe. Medical precautions like sideline cold tubs – which saved the life of Towson University lineman Cavin Glass in 2013 – can be put into place. No one has to die from running too many gassers. All that’s needed is a cultural overhaul, and safety rules to codify it.

Case in point: Eight years ago, the NCAA began requiring athletes to be screened for sickle cell trait as part of their mandatory preseason physicals. Over the previous decade, 10 college football players had died of exertional sickling during workouts – but since the rule was adopted, only one athlete, University of California lineman Ted Agu, has died of the condition under similar circumstances.

“We can prevent these things from happening,” Anderson says. “And we’ll still have good athletes and a good game of football.”

Of course, prevention requires change. And it’s unclear how far college football is willing to go. The NCAA’s sickle screening didn’t come from the proactive goodness of anyone’s heart – it came after the family of deceased Rice University defensive back Dale Lloyd II sued the school and the association, demanding mandatory tests as part of a settlement. Similarly, the NCAA helped create a 2012 list of best practices designed to prevent offseason workout deaths. But the organization doesn’t mandate those practices, nor punish schools that fail to follow them.

Meanwhile, schools send mixed messages. Agu died in 2014. Two years later, Cal admitted negligence and settled a wrongful death lawsuit with his family for $4.75m. Nevertheless, strength coach Damon Harrington – who oversaw Agu’s fatal workout and reportedly presided over a punitive culture that included encouraging a “Code Red”-style assault on running back Fabiano Hale after he missed a conditioning sessionremained in his position until last year. He now has the same job at Grambling State University.

Or take University of Iowa strength Chris Doyle. In early 2011, an offseason workout meant to determine “who wanted to be on the team” and consisting of 100 squats in 17 minutes followed by sled pushes left 13 football players hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a stress-induced syndrome that can damage cells and cause kidney damage and failure. Ten of those players had blood levels of creatine kinase about 120 times higher than Iowa players tested in subsequent fall practices; elevated levels of creatine kinase are associated with heart attacks and conditions that produce muscle and brain damage.

But never mind all that. Three months after the incident, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz named Doyle his first-ever “most valuable coach of the year.” Today, he’s the highest-paid strength coach in the sport, with a base salary of $725,000.

“Pick a stakeholder or constituency group [in college football],” Anderson says. “I’ve had conversations over and over with them about conditioning and preventing deaths. And it’s not just me. Others have been involved as well. It just hasn’t resonated as a point of priority within the culture, period … we still live with Junction Boys syndrome.”

About those boys: Bryant’s extreme workouts drove most of his roster to quit. The players who remained went 1-9. During training camp, a player named Billy Schroeder suffered a heat stroke, and likely would have died had a local doctor not packed his body in ice. In response, Bryant ended camp a few days earlier than he planned. More than half a century later, college football has yet to take the hint. “Because it happens so often, there gets to be a little bit of acceptance of things,” Anderson says. “‘Well, football players die of heatstroke. That’s just a risk.’ I’m kind of wondering what body count we’re waiting for before we take some action.”