Thompson High School football coach and athletic director Mark Freeman called his former Spanish Fort High School player Alex McKeever last week on the first day of football practice just to tell him hello. He wanted to hear his voice one more time.
He said it was the most enjoyable phone call he’s ever made – and he hopes to make the same call each August for the next 50 years.
Alex, a sophomore last year, was going through drills on the first day of practice with Freeman’s then Spanish Fort Toros when the 6-foot-4 youngster collapsed in cardiac arrest. What happened next was a miracle, Freeman said, for many reasons.
Spanish Fort had an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place for football practice – one Freeman said his staff, trainers and coaches practiced often. It worked to perfection.
All member schools of the Alabama High School Athletic Association are required to have EAPs on file when audited. The AHSAA, however, stresses the importance of having emergency action plans for after school activities by requiring schools to have an EAP for practice and games for every sport and every venue. It was a main focus of the AHSAA Summer Conference last month.
A template designed to help schools develop a plan is available to all schools. The AHSAA also recently provided each member high school and middle school an EAP program template designed by the Minnesota State High School League entitled Anyone Can Save A Life that utilizes students in roles of responsibility. This is an essential step-by-step plan that is designed for schools with few coaches or sports where one coach may be the only adult in the gym or on the field with a team on a regular basis. This plan shows how anyone, students or adults, can help save a life when a crisis occurs – if they know and practice their roles.
The AHSAA auditors now check those plans when conducting school audits. Each high school and middle school is audited yearly.
“Our preparedness saved Alex’s life,” Freeman said. “Everyone knew their task, from the coach who called 911, to the coach who called the parents to the coach who directed the emergency vehicle into and out of the stadium. We actually had two AEDs (automated external defibrillator) on hand and we needed them.”
Freeman said his certified athletic trainer (Rob Milam) had an AED and the team had one. They had to use them both when the first one began to fail.
“Alex’s heart had stopped, but Rob revived him and the paramedics arrived in time to get him to a local hospital. The rest was even more miraculous,” Freeman said. “He was able to recover fully, and when we played in the Champions Challenge at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl three weeks later, he and his family were on hand watching from the press box.”
He said he now tells his coaches all the time that he learned two important things from AHSAA Medical Advisory Committee co-chairman Dr. (Jimmy) Robinson at the AHSAA’s mandatory medical advisory meeting at the Summer Conference the year before.
“I learned that if someone is suffering from a heat related illness, they have 100 percent recovery if action is taken within 10 minutes. If not, then it can be disastrous. So we keep an ice tub ready at each practice.”
“When Alex collapsed, we had the ice tub ready but his situation was not about heat. The second thing I learned is that emergency action plans are a must – and the plan must be practiced so everyone knows what their roles are.”
Freeman said he hopes to never have to use an EAP ever again, “but if we have to, then we will be ready,” he said. “The most important thing I brought with me to my new position at Thompson is the EAP. I learned from that experience last year that an emergency is going to come when you least expect it. That situation happened early in the first day of fall practice, our least strenuous day. We were only in our fifth session when Alex suffered his cardiac arrest. I thank God every day that we were prepared.”
Goshen High School football coach and athletic director Bart Snyder is also a very vocal proponent of being prepared. Emergency action plans are not just about knowing where the AED is located,” he said. “It is about taking seriously the training that is available, taking seriously the importance of practicing the plan and making sure everyone, from the coaches, players and the volunteers who might be parking the vehicles at a game, knows what to do.”
Snyder remembers an emergency crisis at his school a few years ago.
“We had an incident that took place in our gym during a girls’ basketball game,” he said. “We had a kid to fall out. During that time, our coaches responded quickly – having been trained to know CPR. Having plans in place enabled us to respond and gave the injured student an opportunity to survive.”
Like Freeman, Snyder said his coaches, students and school practice those plans often.
“We’ll rehearse those plans during fall practice in case something else were to happen,” Snyder said. “Of course, like coaches we hope it doesn’t, but we know we must be prepared just in case. When we practice a crisis situation, we usually let the students know in advance because we don’t want them to panic. Later in the year (after their initial training), we may stage something without informing them just so we can see how everyone will respond.
“In that one particular case I mentioned earlier, the kids that were there responded and helped us. You just couldn’t imagine how well they responded given the situation. It is amazing just what kids can do in certain situations when called upon.”
Snyder is a firm believer in safety education. He said no one will ever hear him complain of the AHSAA requirements placed on each coach. He says few businesses require their supervisors to be as well-trained in safety as high school coaches.
AHSAA rules require all coaches, faculty and non-faculty, to undergo health and safety education training before even stepping on a court or field to work with the student-athletes. The requirements include completing the NFHS Principles of Coaching and Sports Safety and First Aid courses online. All coaches must also be CPR and AED certified at all times, which requires annual training, and they must also complete the NFHS Concussion Awareness and Heat Illness Prevention courses online. The NFHS offers a Cardiac Arrest course that has been recommended for all AHSAA coaches, and through a joint effort with LifeStart, each school now has its own AED to use in emergencies and also to use in classroom training.
Snyder said the tools provided by the AHSAA has helped him become a better coach and helped him better prepare his staff.
“We always try to put safety first,” he said. “We preach to our incoming coaches that whatever we do the child’s safety is number one. We don’t ever want to put our children into a place where they could overheat or become injured due to our mistake.
“So, we’re not going to do anything without thinking safety first.”
NEXT: Final part of this five-part series addresses the importance of coaching technique.