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High School Athletes Die From Heat

August 22, 1998

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ Matthew Whittredge was no quitter.

The 15-year-old sophomore showed up at the first day of football practice Monday at Circle High School in Towanda, determined to give it his best shot again.

Matthew didn’t quit the football team last year after the seniors ordered him and the other freshmen to roll in the mud. He didn’t leave the track team when he couldn’t win. And he stayed on the basketball team even though he wasn’t very good at that, either.

About 30 miles away, Robert ``Alex″ Barrett also showed up for his first day of football practice at Southeast High in Wichita. The 17-year-old senior longed to make the team after three years of watching from the sidelines as a member of the band.

The temperatures were up over 100, however, and before the afternoon was over, the two teen-agers were fighting for their lives in the hospital.

On Tuesday, they died, just hours apart.

The boys’ deaths from heat stroke have left their families looking for answers and wondering whether the safety guidelines for hot-weather practices need to be rethought.

Dorothy Whittredge said she hopes some good can come out of her son’s death. She said that schools put too much emphasis on sports and that something is wrong with the safety precautions when two players die on the same day.

``I don’t feel badly toward anyone. I haven’t laid any blame, although I have regrets,″ Mrs. Whittredge said. ``I’ve accepted the fact this had to be, but why did it have to be Matthew?″

Officials at both schools have said their coaches followed the guidelines, which call for rest and water breaks every 15 minutes in hot weather.

``Our coach and coaching staff are really concerned about safety,″ said Dee Gard, activities director at Southeast High.

Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, said the organization’s hot weather tips are guidelines only, not mandatory. They recommend, among other things, sending athletes for physical exams, allowing them to get used to the hot weather gradually, and making an unlimited amount of water available.

Last week, a 17-year-old North Carolina football player died of severe heat exhaustion after practice. Nationally, there was one heat-related football death among high school students in 1997 and two in 1996, according to a University of North Carolina study.

Most high school sports associations across the country provide the hot weather tips as guidelines only, said Jerry Diehl, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Kansas City, Mo.

At Southeast High, Alex joined his teammates at 7:45 a.m. in helmets, T-shirts and shorts. State athletic rules prohibit the use of pads during the first three days of practice. When Alex told his coach he did not feel well, he was told to get some water. Alex then continued to practice. Sometime after 10 a.m., as he walked into the locker room, he collapsed and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Matthew and his teammates began practice at 3:30 p.m. Around 7 p.m., at the end of practice, he collapsed. The players had just finished a 10-minute jog to cool down. Matthew’s temperature was nearly 109 when he arrived at the hospital.

Alex’s mother, Frances Barrett, has been in seclusion. But she told The Wichita Eagle that football was something Alex had always wanted to do. ``Alex dedicates himself, and he does not back out of it,″ she said.

Mrs. Whittredge likewise said Matthew ``didn’t quit. He knew he would have to follow through with it if he tried it.″

At Circle High, a suburban school with about 440 students, football practices resumed Thursday after one day off. Practices continued uninterrupted at Southeast High, where about 1,800 go to school.

Paul Seery, a 15-year-old football player who also was on the debate team with Alex, said some teammates got teary-eyed when they learned of his death. Practice was subdued Thursday, and people weren’t laughing as usual.

``We try not to think about it that much. Most of us just keep going on,″ Paul said.

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