When the University of Maryland turned to an outside consultant to investigate the circumstances involved in the death of football player Jordan McNair, it was no surprise the person they chose to lead the probe was former Terry Sanford High School student athletic trainer Rod Walters.
Walters, a 1975 graduate of Terry Sanford, learned about athletic training under well-known Bulldog coaches like Len Maness, Mackie Hall, Fred McDaniel and Wayne Byrd.
He went on to a brilliant Hall of Fame career as an athletic trainer at his alma mater, Appalachian State, as well as Lenoir-Rhyne and the University of South Carolina. He finally stepped down in 2007 to create his own consulting business that focuses on providing education and resources to fellow athletic trainers.
“Education is probably the biggest part of what I do,’’ said Walters. “I review programs. I’ve been doing one or two of these a year.’’
That was what Maryland asked him to do when they reached out to him in early June following the tragic death in May of McNair during an offseason workout session.
Walters’ 74-page report, which was issued in mid- September, concluded that cold-water immersion tanks used to rapidly reduce the core temperature of a player suffering from heat-related illness were not available at Maryland’s practice that day because the practice location had been changed at the last minute and the tanks were elsewhere.
While Maryland had some good emergency policies in place, Walters said they needed to be followed completely. “Deviation from that causes problems,’’ he said.
He added that the Maryland athletic trainers on the scene didn’t take vital signs and didn’t identify escalating symptoms of heat stroke.
Walters said the main lesson the death of McNair taught for both Maryland and any athletic program is emergency action plans must be specific when stating what’s going to happen and how the athletic trainers and coaches are going to deal with it.
Things like “How do we identify signs and symptoms?’’ Walters said. “How do we implement care? Are all the parties involved, coaches and athletic trainers, appropriately prepared to deal with that? Do we have appropriate monitoring of the weather, whether it be lightning or heat? Do we have the processes in place?’’
In the case of heat-related illness, Walters said the problem is complicated because there are so many pieces. They include accurately and rapidly identifying the nature of the heat illness followed by rapid treatment and aggressive cooling of the athlete to bring the temperature down.
“There’s a study we quoted in the report, in the event of an exertional heat stroke, that if we identify it within 30 minutes, the chance of mortality or major problems are reduced,’’ Walters said. “That’s why the rapid assessment is so important.’’
Walters said the biggest danger for any athletic program or team is lack of preparation in dealing with emergencies.
“You’ve got to have a plan,’’ Walters said. But even that is not enough. Not only do you have to have a plan, you must practice it, and not just once at the start of a sports season.
“We find that lots of schools, 90 percent of them, have an emergency plan and may practice it in July,’’ he said. “You’ve got to stay on top of that, revisit best practices to make sure we’re doing all the things we can do effectively to treat these people.’’
Walters said heat isn’t the only concern. There are numerous other dangers to be aware of, including cardiac issues, concussions and athletes with sickle cell trait. “All these other things we have to apply to make sure we have an effective plan,’’ he said.
Walters admits it sounds self-serving, but he said it’s a good idea for all schools to have someone like himself come in and conduct an independent review of how they’re doing things. “They’ve got to review the emergency action plan and make sure it’s thorough,’’ he said. “Have somebody review that your best practices are best practices.
“A lot of places aren’t doing that.’’
For more information about Walters and his consulting work, go to www.rodwalters.com.
Photo: Rod Walters