Korey Stringer's death, 20 years later: The lasting impact and how the NFL changed

Twenty-five summers ago, an NFL star was killed in practice at the Minnesota Vikings' training camps. These words are still confusing and stinging in equal measures. Korey Stringer, 27, died suddenly from complications not related to a heart attack or a broken neck. The complications of exertional heatstroke caused by the offensive tackle's death were easily treatable and could have been avoided. Sports medicine was largely ignored at that time.Stringer's 20th anniversary on Aug. 1, 2001 will bring new pain to his loved ones. Their tragedy will bring them comfort.All levels of football began to reexamine outdated ideas about heat conditioning, hydration, and the psychology behind pushing through physical discomfort almost immediately. Kelci Stringer's widow said that this summer, "It gave them permission for common sense."The Korey Stringer institute (KSI) was founded in 2010. It is a partnership between Kelci and Jimmy Gould, as well as the NFL, University of Connecticut, and Gatorade. This has accelerated progress and allowed it to expand into new areas. Based on data from the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, 51% of deaths due to exertional heatstroke in sports have fallen over the past decade. This is partly because of advocacy and research. According to Douglas Casa (chief executive officer of KSI) and a professor at UConn of kinesiology, 38 states have adopted new safety guidelines or changed their laws. An estimated 75% have cold water immersion bathtubs that can reverse heat illness.Kevin Stringer, Korey's brother said, "Anytime there is a significant change in the way society does things it's usually because somebody died or was hurt in some manner, shape, or form." I guess Korey's passing was the cost for my family. Sometimes it bothers me when I hear about someone suffering heat-related injuries. But I know that even if that happens there is more knowledge of what to do. We made it. It was not an easy journey."A perfect storm of all the bad things"Stringer was one of the NFL's top offensive linemen at the time of his passing. He was a Vikings' first round pick in 1995. Although he struggled to lose weight, he earned Pro Bowl honors for his outstanding performance at right tackle in 2000. At 336 pounds, he was in great shape and appeared poised to become a cultural star.An Esquire magazine profile, reported in the months leading up to his death and published shortly after, was entitled "The Enlightened Man" and described him as "six feet four inches, 340 pounds of supersized, liver-and-onions-eating, deep-thinking, dreadlocked delight."Todd Steussie, an offensive lineman for the Vikings from 1994 to 2000, said that "He was the guy that made you feel like your best friend." There were at least 20 others on the team who felt the same. To this day, he still pops into my head at random times."Stringer was a prolific sweater maker, something he acknowledged with witty humor. Jeanne Marie Laskas, Esquire writer, noted it often and with haunting foresight. She wrote that he always had a towel because "anyone who has been blessed with an automatic irrigation system should always have one."Minnesota was particularly hard hit by the cold weather at the beginning of training camp. Stringer, who had previously struggled to adjust in the beginning of camp, vomited three more times during the first practice on July 30, after which he was unable to continue. Stringer left the camp early by riding a cart, and he joined athletic trainers in an enclosed trailer near the Minnesota State University, Mankato fields. Stringer's vomiting picture was published in the (Minneapolis), Star Tribune the next morning. At the time, he told his teammates he was upset and embarrassed. The Star Tribune published a photograph of Stringer vomiting.On July 31, the weather was worse. The heat index, which measures how the weather at a particular time is determined by temperature and humidity, was almost 90 degrees when the team entered the field wearing full pads. The Vikings practiced in the heat as they had been scheduled, despite playing their indoor games at the Metrodome. Stringer vomit at least once, and he left briefly to have an ankle tap done. He then resumed the practice.Teammates claim that Korey Stringer was unhappy with the photo taken at his July 30, 2001 training camp practice. Some believe this played a role in Stringer's exertional heatstroke the next day. AP Photo/Minneapolis Star Tribune, Carlos GonzalezSoon he began to show signs of distress. He was one of six Vikings players who were suffering from heat illness that day. He fell while hitting a blocking box and fell on his back. A freelance photographer captured the moment, but withheld the photo out of respect for Stringer's family. Matt Birk, a teammate, was among those who needed medical assistance. Stringer was accompanied by an athletic trainer, who took him to the same trailer with air conditioning that he had seen the day before.Military doctors were well-versed in the treatment of heatstroke, which was common for troops who had to work in harsh environments. However, the NFL didn't have any intervention and diagnosis techniques. Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, has now retired and admitted that neither the Vikings nor the league were prepared for the next step.Tagliabue stated this summer that "I don’t think that heatstroke was on most teams’ radar screens at that time", citing the mistaken belief of air conditioning being able to sufficiently cool overheated athletes.NFL teams now follow a protocol to treat exertional heatstroke. This protocol was endorsed by KSI, the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA). It requires that you immediately take your rectal temperature and then place those whose body temperature is above 104 in a cold bath. According to KSI/NATA protocols, exertional heatstroke victims who have their internal temperature reduced below 104 degrees within 30 min of onset of symptoms will be able to survive 100%.Tagliabue said that "a lot was learned and teams moved very quickly." He will be inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. "Good lessons were learnt and well-practiced."However, it wouldn't have been in time to save Stringer. According to court documents compiled from a series civil lawsuits, Stringer was not treated for exertional heatstroke by the two trainers. According to documents, he spent 50 minutes in the trailer, appearing to be at rest, but then becoming unresponsive. He was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where his core temperature was 108.8 degrees. Thirteen hours later, he died from multiple organ failure. He was found to be at 1:50 AM local time on August 1.Kevin Stringer stated, "It was an incredibly bad storm that brought together all the worst." "There were no policies and some bad decisions made that day. It was also bad weather. That awareness was not there back then. It doesn't have that kind of awareness anymore. That is what I am grateful for."Steussie had signed as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers several months prior, but he left Panthers camp briefly and returned to Minnesota to grieve Stringer's passing. He still isn't over it.He said, "If you put him in an ice bath, Korey will be alive today." It's so simple and it makes it so difficult to imagine.What happened next?Matt Birk held firm to an unalienable truth, even on the hottest days in his career. According to the old saying, "the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed during battle," This belief led to his personal default setting.Birk played center for the Vikings between 1998 and 2008, and he finished his career with Baltimore Ravens in 2009 to 2012. I can still remember thinking to myself, "Look, you won't die." Sincere. "You won't die." Let's get on board, let's do it!"So Korey died, and you were like, really? Is that really true? He did actually die. It hit me that you could actually die playing football. You could be seriously injured. You could injure your knee. The neck injuries. It was amazing, though.Although the NFL did not make any immediate policy changes, Birk felt a shift in a practical sense. There were more breaks and more emphasis on hydration. He said that the culture had changed. The term "heatstroke" suddenly spread through all levels football, carrying with its it a familiar and stark image of warning.Over six seasons, Korey Stringer played 91 games with the Vikings and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2000. George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesRobert Smith, a former Vikings running back, also played at Ohio State with Stringer until Stringer's death.Smith suggested that it might be due to the bubble you are in. After Korey's passing, people began to discuss how often this actually happens. It may not be at the professional level, but at all levels of the sport. It was eye-opening to realize that. It was absolutely devastating."Smith retired in 2001 and worked as a volunteer coach at the Florida youth level for the next several years. Smith was both delighted and surprised to see a new environment of heat awareness. He grew up in an era that required little water breaks and was adamant about weather conditions. They had set breaks and would not change. It was something I'd never seen in football before, and it began almost immediately."Stringer continued to push through his last practice, despite not taking any breaks and without any culture of heat illness concern. Smith believes Stringer was motivated to give "a little more" after seeing the newspaper image of his distress the day before.Smith stated, "That's really what is the worst part for me." Smith spoke of his thoughts about Smith's mindset going into each day of practice. Smith just wanted to make amends and forget what had happened the day before.Stringer's final hours of consciousness will never be known. However, his family doesn't believe he would have been engrossed enough in football culture to deliberately push himself into a dangerous zone. A heatstroke-related condition that causes a drop in cognitive function is one of the signs. Stringer may not have realized what was happening. Kelci Stringer stated that her husband had enough equity and confidence with the team "to be able make choices" regarding exertion.Draft Day Can Be Any Day! With our live draft lobby you can draft a team in minutes. Jump into a draft >>She said, "You can't say never, but it's not what happened." "I think it was extreme weather conditions and that the staff were very untrained. This will not change. They were not sorry. They were untrained and unable to understand what was happening. Combine these two factors and you have the death of a player. You're dead. Period.Stringer's passing created a safety net for players who used to fear that they would be punished for reducing their efforts in the heat. Birk stated, "It changed our culture."Birk stated that he saw another offensive lineman struggle during a summer practice while playing for the Ravens in later years of his career. Birk was told by the player that he was trying lose weight."I clearly remember telling him that I told him to not lose weight in training camp. Birk stated. Birk said, "I told him that I was on the field when a man died. That's impossible. Do not worry about your weight. Do not worry about it now. We'll get to that later. He was losing weight and eating less. It was a lasting effect that was there after Korey died. It was something I carried with me throughout my career."How football has changed and the current protocolsKelci and her family filed several lawsuits in the aftermath. They were able to achieve their goal of having all key players -- coaches, medical officials, eyewitnesses, etc. -- recorded. These led to settlements with Dr. David Knowles (Mankato-based doctor) and Riddell (manufacturer of the helmet/shoulder pads Korey was wearing in his final practice. The Stringers argued that Riddell had a duty of warning users that its products could cause heatstroke.Jimmy Gould, Korey's agent and also served as a family spokesperson, said that he was contacted by Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner in 2009. Goodell and Jeff Pash, his general counsel, requested a meeting. Kelci and Gould met at the NFL headquarters in New York to reach a deal that included a 10-year commitment by the NFL to help start and fund Korey Stringer. (The NFL continues to be the primary sponsor.Casa was a survivor from exertional heatstroke and was hired by Gould to run KSI. Many of the best practices and protocols that KSI had promoted would be adopted by the NFL and NCAA in the years to come.Gould stated, "That was a game changer." The NFL knew it had to make some changes and did. There are two sides to life. Can you identify a problem and admit it? If there is a solution to the problem, will you commit the resources necessary to implement it? They did in the Goodell case, which included Jeff Pash. While you will hear many people criticize the NFL's handling of player health, it won’t be me. They wanted this to be right and, in my opinion, Korey's case will not happen again in the NFL.Korey Stringer was loved by his team and had a lasting impression on many. JUDY GRIESEDIECK/Star Tribune via Getty ImagesIt would be a major departure from current protocols to allow an NFL player suffering from exertional heatstroke to die. Each summer, the league distributes video content from Casa to refresh and train team medical personnel about hydration and warning signs like cramping, cold tub treatment, and return-to play advisories.Eric Sugarman is the current Vikings athletic trainer. He joined the organization in 2006.Sugarman stated that football players can lose between 8-12 liters of fluid each day during preseason. Therefore, it is important to ensure your hydration. Each Vikings player is subject to daily urine tests, which are used to determine their hydration levels. This is known as "specific gravity". The benchmarks that players must meet in order to take part in the day's activity are set by the team. This policy would have likely prevented Stringer from taking part in his last day of practice.According to current protocols, Stringer was almost certain not to be fully recovered from the vomiting episodes during the first practice. This would make it unlikely that he could return to full training. According to NFL protocols, players must be taken out of practice immediately after they have vomited once. A current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association states that players must not wear full pads until the seventh day or so of training camp.NFL teams often use "Gatorade weights," which are devices that determine weight loss and recommend a rehydration plan. Some teams use core temperature sensors, which are used to monitor the players' core temperatures and transmit them to the medical staff during practice. The Vikings have banned coaches and players from wearing rubber shirts that they used to wear to lose weight during hot days. Every team must have an emergency plan that has been approved by the NFL's safety and health office. It outlines where cold tubs can be found, how long they should cool down, and when to call for help.Sugarman stated, "Preparation Is the Key Elements."KSI is now focusing its attention on the maze of state bodies and high school associations that regulate sports below the college level. Casa worked separately with four entities that had jurisdiction over New York's youth athletes to win adoption of KSI protocols.Casa has been to 19 states in the last two years, meeting with organizers and testifying before legislators. In the next nine year, he will visit 15 additional states. Casa has helped to facilitate meetings between local emergency services and school districts to determine the best cooling time for a victim of exertional heatstroke before they transport them to the hospital. He also served as expert witness in a case where he was asked whether school medical staff have the legal right to conduct rectal temperature checks on students.Casa says that the quantitative progress has seen a doubling in the number of high schools equipped with cold tub immersion equipment. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, the United States has seen a decrease in sports-related heatstroke deaths to 2.2 per year over the past five years. This is a drop of 4.5 between 2001 and 2011.He said that "the states we visited have made quantum leaps with their policies," but it showed him how difficult it is to do it state-by-state.The Korey Stringer Institute at UConn continues to research the effects of high temperatures on athletes. These efforts have influenced football programs all across the country. AP Photo/Pat Eaton RobbKSI now has 22 full-time employees and 83 volunteers. This allows it to expand into research for the Defense Department, as well as testing experimental hydration products for businesses, among other things. This growth allowed Kelci Stringer, its manager, to leave and spend three years in Panama with True, her daughter. They moved back to the U.S. in the COVID-19 pandemic last year and now reside in Charlotte, North Carolina.Kelci stated, "I had to make an important decision." "Am I going be Korey's widow or am I going be Kelci Stringer?" Both, I can now say. But I needed to step back to see the larger picture. They needed more legs than me to support the institute. It has worked so well."Gould stated: "The hope was that KSI could be transformative." We want to be in a position to say that if someone leaves to play sports, they will return home.Stringer's Memory: "Find the Way"Twenty years later, Stringer's legacy echoes around his family. Many of the interviewees recounted stories of Korey from strangers.Kim is his sister and lives in Warren, Ohio. Kim was Korey's brother. He once dropped off his $15,000 Pro Bowl check at Rebecca Williams Community Center. This act of kindness was a gift that the family discovered years later. A man from Maine sent her an uninvited message via Facebook. The father of the man wanted to send Korey a large shipment of photos and memorabilia he had collected over the years.Kim stated, "He said to me, Your brother touched so much lives, and I just wanted you to know that people still remember him." "People don't forget him, and that's so beautiful."Employees of the moving company saw old family photos when Kelci arrived in Charlotte. One of the photos had Korey on it. This prompted them to recall how they were warned about their death when playing high school football. Kodie was moving to Los Angeles to pursue music production. The leasing agent at the apartment building recognized his name, and said that he knew his father as a gentle and kind man.The Vikings have retired Korey Stringer’s No. 77 jersey in the 2001 season. JERRY HOLT/Star Tribune via Getty ImagesKim stated that Kodie is a living testament to this aesthetic right down to how people are drawn to him quiet and engaging personality. Kodie, now 23, decided not to continue his high school football career at college. He didn't want "to waste the time" of coaches who might eventually discover that he wasn't passionate about the game.Kodie stated, "Actually," "I just didn’t understand it." It was something I hated as a child."Laskas shared the story behind Korey's tattoo in 2001 Esquire. It contained the letters "FTW," which were meant to stand for "F--- The World." After marrying Kelci and having Kodie, he rethought its meaning. Laskas explained that it now meant "Find the way".People who have lost Kodie's father may rest easy knowing that his son is still on the right track. You may have seen him on Jimmy Kimmel Live! earlier this month, dancing behind DJ Amorphous. He was a college friend performing with Kelly Rowland.Stringer might have had a gold chain wrapped around his neck if you paid attention. The pendant was a Vikings pendant that Korey had given his grandfather many years ago. It was returned to Kodie and he still wears it daily. He is still remembered by his father.