Beating The Heat

The late Johnny Carson had a number of regular comedy routines in his longtime role as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." One of them involved the weather.

"It was hot today," Carson would say.

"How hot was it?" came the cry from the audience.

And Carson would add a punch line. "It was so hot I saw a robin picking up a worm with a pot-holder."

Heat on the Alabama football practice field is no laughing matter.

Bill McDonald, a member of the National Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame, is Alabama's director of sports medicine. Although his time now is mostly off-the-field in administrative work, he is actively at work during pre-season practice as he and his staff monitor the weather for two dangerous situations.

Three of the first five Alabama practices this pre-season were concluded in the Crimson Tide's indoor practice facility. The reason: lightning in the area.

McDonald is constantly tuned in to two National Weather Service monitoring devices for lightning. One is the general weather service at VandeGraaf Field, the Tuscaloosa airport. The other is a handheld communications device that is centered on Alabama's football practice fields.

We're monitoring lightning strikes up to 250 miles away, but if there is a strike within 15 miles of the practice field I get an automatic call to my cell phone," McDonald said. "That's why we were able to get the football team indoors before those storms hit the area [in Bama's first week of practice]."

While lightning is an obvious danger, another is the heat and humidity that comes with football practice in Alabama in August. And that's the case through much of the nation, particularly this year when temperatures have been higher than normal.

Alabama is in its second year using a high-tech wet bulb sensor that provides real time measure of the heat index based on heat and humidity. In addition to McDonald's hand-held monitor, members of his staff check the the more accurate sensor every few minutes. On Saturday it was at 109.

"Anytime the temperature reaches 88-90 degrees, you have to be careful and we keep a close eye on the conditions and on the players," McDonald said. "Although it has been hot, we have not been at a dangerous level."

Even though Alabama's football players are well-conditioned, they are also air-conditioned for much of their activities. Their apartments, cars, and classrooms are all air conditioned.

McDonald is part of a staff of eight staff and 15 student trainers at Alabama pre-season practices. And up to 12 of those are Certified Athletic Trainers. "In the old days, we might have two Certified Athletic Trainers," McDonald said.

He said that two things had been important in helping with preventing heat related illness. One is that incoming freshmen were put on scholarship for summer school for the first time this year, allowing them to come in and work in the summer conditioning program. The other element in safety is the five-day acclimatization period of only one practice a day and a gradual move into full gear and the stipulation that there can be no days of back-to-back two-a-day practices.

Fluids are important to preventing heat illness. Alabama players are stopped at least three times each practice for fluid intake. Additionally, fluid stations are all around the field and trainers carry fluids for use by players at any time.

At the conclusion of practice, many players head for the cool down tubs of ice and water. "It drops the core temperature of the body," McDonald said. "But the real benefit is that legs recover much quicker from the heat when they are immersed in the ice water following practice."

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