By Kevin Posival
Killeen Daily Herald
Sam Jones remembers hot summers in the 1980s and '90s.
But those summers are nothing compared to the current heat wave that has scorched the entire southern region of the United States and blistered Central Texas with 39 days of 100-degree temperatures since July 1, according to the National Weather Service.
"When you're talking about 108 (degrees), I can't remember those days, actually starting football with it being that hot," Jones said. "This is a new territory for all coaches, also."
Jones' Killeen Kangaroos, like other 4A and 5A programs around the state that participated in spring workouts, open their summer two-a-days this morning, literally trying to beat the heat of these potentially deadly August afternoons.
"By 10 o'clock, it's not even hot yet - it's not in the 100s at all - so we're pretty much out of the heat," said Salado coach Glenn Talbott, whose 3A Eagles began morning practices last week, with varsity going from 7 to 10 a.m. "When it hits 3-4 o'clock in the afternoon, it's 107, 108 and you can hardly breathe."
The state's small schools, like Florence, Gatesville, Lampasas and Salado, started working out in full pads Friday. The
University Interscholastic League requires that teams can only practice in shorts, T-shirts and helmets the first four days of summer workouts.
"It was 100 degrees when we walked in at 11 a.m. and we are doing everything we can to practice when it is cool," Florence coach Paul Smith said. "But you still have (to practice)."
The heat was to blame in two football-related deaths last week, including an assistant coach in Plano, and is suspected in another.
Wade McLain, who was a baseball coach and history teacher as well as a football assistant at Prestonwood Christian Academy, died last Monday from a combination of heat and a pre-existing heart condition.
Two high school players in Georgia also died last week, though only the death of 16-year-old Forrest Jones, a student at Locust Grove High School, has been officially tied to the heat.
"We tell them about replenishing fluids and also not letting (the heat) get up on you," Gatesville coach Kyle Cooper said. "That's the scary thing - when it comes, it comes in a hurry. So we make sure we stay on top of them and talk to them about getting out of there if they're tired."
For these opening weeks of practice, when school is still out for the summer, the extreme heat can be avoided by early-morning schedules. But once school starts, those peak heat hours - 3-7 p.m. - are the same as most after-school practices and pre-game routines.
At Florence, Smith said he would consider delaying his Aug. 18 scrimmage against Johnson City two hours, from 6 to 8 p.m.
And the larger schools are almost certainly going to avoid their artificial turf surfaces until absolutely necessary.
"They're great to play on, but they do get hot," Harker Heights coach Mike Mullins said. "We have that small turf field (at the school) and one day last week, we looked at it about 3:45 or 4 p.m. and it was 132 (degrees).
"It's crazy to try and do anything on it because you just can't - you step out there and it's just like working out in a microwave."
With scheduling tweaks, teams can work around the heat, but humidity and hydration are altogether different beasts that must be actively confronted.
"When you start talking about the humidity, you've just got to be careful that everybody is sweating like they're suppose to," Mullins said.
"The next thing is what they do after practice - that they refuel their bodies with electrolytes, whether its Gatorade or some kind of sports drink, and eat a good meal."
Those days of coaches "toughening players up" are done, though players entrenched in position battles and wanting to prove themselves to their teammates and coaches, despite the conditions and risks, is a heated battle coaches need to win.
"They want to do well, they want to make the squad, they want to be the first-team guy, and so it's up to us (as coaches)," Cooper said. "We're the professionals. So it's our job to monitor those kids and have hawk-eyes and antennas up. We know them - we work with them every day. And when they're not acting like themselves, we're going to get them out of there."
In addition to necessary, multiple water breaks, teams make available numerous water cows - large, transportable water coolers with drinking stations - scattered around practice fields and meandering athletic and student trainers providing water bottles and wet towels to players. But sometimes it takes more than just access and opportunity.
"I think we're just going to have to hydrate them, keep them hydrated, drink a lot of water before they come on the field, a lot of water after we come off the field, a lot of water while they're on the field," Jones said. "It's not like it was back in my day where you had one cup of water and that was it.
"We're going to do everything we can to take care of our kids, that's what we're here for," he added. "It's not about where we are the first two or three weeks, anyway, it's where we are by the time district starts."
Alex Byington, Angel Verdejo and Nick Talbot contributed to this report.