0

A hard-hitting message to hear, loud and clear

The hardest hitters in football make their own badges of honor, and forcefully apply them right between the other guy's numbers. They get the moniker "Assassin," "Terminator" or "Big Punisher" and they play in stadiums nicknamed for the agony said to be delivered therein.

Washington County's "House of Pain" in Sandersville comes to mind.

But there isn't a defensive end who delivers or a linebacker who levels a harder blow than is being felt across the state today -- the death of someone so young, so apparently fit, with so much future that will never be realized.

And not just one someone, but two -- on the same day.

On the third day since the Georgia High School Association permitted official practices to begin, the fates of Locust Grove's Forest Jones and Fitzgerald's D.J. Searcy sent the only August chill in the Southeast throughout the state's high school football programs. From Catoosa County along the northern state line to Camden County nestled hard against Florida on the swampy southern border, they were the cautionary tales on everybody's minds.

We've seen athletes paralyzed or fall dead of undetected heart defects.

But something so ever-present as the Georgia heat is supposed to sit on you, not kill you.

Jones and Searcy were 16-year-olds who probably never met, just like their teams never did. But because the high temperatures and humidity are the apparent culprit in both their deaths, they seem destined to be forever intertwined with Korey Stringer, the 27-year-old Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle who became the only NFL player ever to die from heat stroke.

Exactly 10 years and one day before they did.

Forest Jones wanted to be an NFL player, too. But he didn't (couldn't?) hear what his body said, according to his grief-stricken father.

"When you're body tells you you're tired, stop and tell somebody," Glenn Jones said.

Your body tells you, but sometimes it's hard to hear clearly when you're listening to your dreams, to the unspoken pressure to not appear weak or soft. It's hard enough for an adult to sift mixed messages. How much harder is it for 16-year-old ears, which haven't been fully trained to strain destructive chords from mature melodies?

On the very day these teens died, I spoke with a high school football coach who said he was pushing his players not to be a team of complainers, but rather overcomers -- a team that wins in spite of. It sounded admirable. And yet an unwillingness to complain might have been the very thing that doomed Forest Jones.

"That's the problem we had -- he didn't complain," Glenn Jones said. "He exhausted himself."

Stringer's death led his wife, Kelci, an Atlanta native, to establish the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, which has as its purpose the prevention of sudden death in sport. Its chief operating officer is Douglas Casa, who suffered a heat stroke during a 10K race in 1985, but lives to tell -- and do something -- about it.

"I was just 16 years old at the time," Casa said, "but I have been driven by this experience since that day."

Maybe you can hear clearly at 16, after all. Let's pray that athletes of all ages do.