Somebody is going to pay. A good man has been lost and Korey Stringer's family and friends, his teammates and employers, are paying dearly already. But somebody else is going to pay, too, because somebody almost always does when a man making millions is killed on the job in a way all of us should have seen coming.
Two days into the grieving process is too early to start throwing around weighty words like blame. That's what lawyers are for. But it's not too early to start looking for ways to prevent what happened from happening again, to learn from a life lost unnecessarily and a sports culture that makes the risks so great by making the rewards even greater.
The massive, 27-year-old Minnesota tackle made almost $4 million last year and he loved the comforts it bought him. Stringer loved playing football, too, and after seven seasons in the NFL he played it well enough to finally make the Pro Bowl. But he was never happier than in those quiet moments spent sitting on the couch while Kodie, his 3-year-old son, tooled around the living room of the fine suburban house some of that money bought. More often than not, his wife, Kelci, had something simmering in the kitchen. Because another thing Stringer loved to do was eat.
Chili-cheese specials at the Hot Dog Shoppe. Barbecue from Eli's. The pizza at Carmen's, but only when the crust was right. Liver and onions, anytime his dad cooked them up in the house Stringer grew up in Warren, Ohio. We know this because Esquire magazine writer Jeanne Marie Laskas included Stringer's favorites in a profile for the September issue.
Like so many other details surrounding Stringer's death, the man who emerges from the pages of that story doesn't fit a predictable mold. Stringer was always too big for his age, but he was too charming and gentle, besides. He cruised through Ohio State and his first few years in the NFL on talent alone, and his weight usually reflected his mood.
When Stringer was single and just starting out in the league, he once ballooned to 388 pounds. A few years ago, in quick succession, Kelci came back into his life, he became a father and the Vikings added a line coach, Mike Tice, who pushed, promised and then showed Stringer how he could be the best. It all clicked. So when Stringer showed up for the opening of training camp Monday weighing around 340 pounds, it was taken as a sign of his determination.
What happened during the next two days left behind a lot of questions, many of which might only be answered in a court of law. It was hot both days -- the heat index topped out Tuesday at nearly 110 degrees -- but Vikings coach Dennis Green is far from the league's toughest taskmaster. If anything, he's known as a coach who cuts his veterans some slack when it comes to conditioning.
But Stringer couldn't make it to the end of Monday's session in pads and apparently redoubled his effort. Looking back, several teammates recalled seeing him struggling to finish and vomiting, perhaps as many as three times. There was water and a medical staff on hand, but Stringer collapsed after Tuesday's session and died 15 hours later of complications from heatstroke.
Hours later, a backup lineman at a high school in Indianapolis was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for dehydration after practicing in the same intense heat. Sophomore Justin Smith was lucky, because according to a study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 18 high school or college football players have died due to heatstroke in the last six years.
Those kids ranged in age, weight, talent and desire. Some were in shape, some weren't. Some were pushed hard in practice and some didn't need any pushing at all. Every one of them bought into the gospel of the sport -- that bigger is better, and bigger and tougher is best of all. Yet until Stringer's death, no one stepped back and questioned whether brutal workouts in brutal heat was really the best way to forge football players.
Now we know better.
Now we know that a man who had it all -- family, fame, fortune and an organization that paid him millions and looked after him accordingly -- didn't know when to say when. And neither did anybody else connected to this tragedy. Not the teammates who adored him, the coaches who respected him, nor the medical staff Stringer avoided until it was too late.
When that happens, it shocks us. But it shouldn't. Common sense and science has been warning for some time that we've steadily been pushing our athletes toward the limits of size and speed and toughness without regard for how they get there, or stay there. Yet there is no shortage of kids willing to sacrifice everything for the chance.
How we must love our entertainment. The question, in the wake of Korey Stringer's death, is how much longer we'll be able to afford it.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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