8-1-01, 3:25 p.m.
Updated: 8-1-01, 9:45 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
GEORGETOWN, Ky., _ Another 90-degree day scalded Bengals training camp Wednesday here at Georgetown College.
But it was a different kind of heat. The sudden death of Vikings Pro Bowl left tackle Korey Stringer earlier in the day turned the sun into death. On a day the Bengals offensive line sent flowers to Stringer's family and cornerback Tom Carter led the team in prayer, the sun kept its relentless vigil.
"Hopefully, the rest of us will pay attention," said Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson.
On Tuesday, the same day Stringer became stricken with heat stroke, Gibson went down here twice. The second time, trainer Paul Sparling sent him into the locker room to get the team's first intravenous fluid of training camp.
Sparling already had his eye on the 308-pound Gibson. For the past three days, Gibson had trouble delivering the sample for a drug test and he had dropped some weight. Those were two sure signs of dehydration.
"I didn't want to be the first guy on the team to get an I.V. and I was fighting it that first time," Gibson said. "But at some point, you have to listen to your body.
"Everybody wants to be a hero, but nobody wants to die," Gibson said. "Sometimes your desire pushes you too far. You've got to use some common sense and I'm sure Korey did use common sense. It probably just hit him a little too fast. He was a hard-working guy. He didn't get to where he was by taking plays off."
Defensive tackle Tony Williams, who had been Stringer's teammate in Minnesota the previous four seasons, knew him better than most. He had been called late Tuesday night here and was told Stringer was critical. He awoke to the crushing news.
"I just couldn't believe it," Williams said. "After being with the other guys all day, it made me feel a little better. . .I grew closer to my new team because of this. I grew closer because of the way they showed concern for me. From (head coach Dick) LeBeau to the equipment guys."
Williams and Stringer were close. They lived about
two minutes away from each other in Eden Prairie, Minn., and one day in the previous offseason, Stringer called Williams and offered to take him to Las Vegas for the first time to watch some boxing.
"He got the hotels and everything. We did some things together," Williams said. "I had to get my stuff together today."
LeBeau felt it best that Williams not practice Wednesday and it was probably for the best. As Williams sat in the shade after practice, he smiled at Stringer's high-voltage personality, remembering how Stringer could imitate anyone. Including Vikings head coach Dennis Green. Including Williams. Everybody loved him, Williams said, and it wasn't just because Korey had just died and that's something people always say when someone dies.
"The life of the party. If you walked into the room, everybody knew Korey," Williams said.
Williams relied on his new teammates to get through the day. He knows his old teammates in Minnesota are "in absolute shambles. I felt like if I talked, we'd all feel worse."
He doesn't know if he'll go to the funeral. He wouldn't even talk about wearing Stringer's No. 77 on his shoes or tape because, "I'll always carry him in my heart."
One thing Williams did know on this frightfully hot Wednesday was this. He wanted to play football Saturday in Chicago.
"I want my teammates to know I'll be there to do my job for them this weekend and from here on," Williams said. "A job is a job and I have to do my job. Korey would have wanted me to go. It's a game he loved and a game he played and he died with it. There's a lot of passion behind it."
Williams felt the Bengals understood how hard it was to lose a teammate. A member of the family. Maybe that's because LeBeau knows. He saw one die in front of him during a 1972 game in which Lions receiver Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack.
"We were in a two-minute drill," LeBeau said. "Twenty-seven years old. Very fit athlete. When the Lord calls you, he calls you."
Fullback Lorenzo Neal, who became the second player late Tuesday to get an I.V. when he cramped up on a training table after Tuesday's practice, thought about that call on Wednesday.
"But I was a long way from dying," Neal said. "I don't care how much you weigh, how much you can lift and how big you are, it just lets you know how fragile you really are. If that's the one thing to take out of it, take that. Tell your loved ones how much you love them."
Sparling had to talk Neal into getting the I.V. Neal said he could drink his way out of it, but that's when Sparling says it is too late to combat dehydration.
"I have yet to find a guy that when they really start cramping up, oral hydration is going to take care of it," Sparling said. "And if all you're doing is drinking water, you're not getting any electrolytes back. You're actually diluting the electrolytes in the body. So it's important to also get the Gatorade and the other sports drinks because it's designed to help replace the Potassium."
Sparling figures the Bengals go through 180 to 200 gallons of water per their afternoon practices that run from 3-5 p.m. But he has always said the key to keeping the team hydrated is stressing drinking water morning, noon and night.
Many players can be seen walking around campus with at least one bottle of water, and sometimes two or three if they're headed into a meeting. One refrigerator in the dining hall is dedicated to water, Gatorade, and other sports drinks.
"We must be doing the right things," Sparling said. "It's a culmination of the players being in good shape and the staff keeping them hydrated."
The staff is also taught to monitor the warning signs of heat stroke: Shortness of breath, effusive sweating or no sweating at all, dizziness, vomiting, and light-headedness.
Sparling also reviews daily the player weights before and after each practice, which the players chart themselves. If a player has lost five to seven percent of his weight, Sparling is tipped that the player is at risk.
"It can happen," Neal said. "You just have to realize how fragile it all is."
Bengals defensive end Vaughn Booker has been doing a lot of thinking like that himself lately. In the past 18 months, he has lost his old Kansas City teammate Derrick Thomas in a car crash, an old NFC Central rival in Stringer, and he thought he nearly lost himself after a bizarre fainting spell walking back to the huddle in Jacksonville last year kept him out of the game for more than a month.
"You just never know," Booker said. "I never thought I could faint like that just walking around. Be up one minute and out the next. I didn't believe it until I saw it on the tape. You just never know. You have to live it to the fullest."
That's the kind of day it was Wednesday, another 90-degree scorcher when life in the NFL never seemed hotter.