Stringer, Korey 1974–2001
Korey Stringer 1974–2001
Professional football player
Minnesota Vikings football player Korey Stringer died at the age of 27 in the summer of 2001, on the third day of pre-season practice. Stringer, a right tackle of immense size, died of complications from heat stroke. He was the first player in the National Football League (NFL) ever to die from heat stroke, but such deaths are common in the game of football, where an athlete’s size and regulatory padding combine with the sometimes deadly summer heat in grueling pre-season practices. His death ignited calls for reform in the game. “Stringer was an incredibly valuable player, one of those men who thoroughly knew the game, every stitch of it, what was happening at every position on every snap of the ball,” wrote Washington Post writer Michael Wilbon after the athlete’s death
Stringer was a native of Warren, Ohio. As a child in the early 1980s, he was a talented baseball player, but because he was so big for his age, his mother would often have to bring his birth certificate to coaches in order to prove his date of birth. She also forbade him to play football until he reached middle school, at which time the teenager emerged as a talent in the sport. At the age of 14, he was six-foot one inch in height, and already weighed 210 pounds. During his freshman year at Warren G. Harding High School, he played on the varsity team; during his junior year, the Harding Raiders won the Ohio State High School Championship.
Recruited by several schools, but choosing Ohio State University in order to be near his family, Stringer again proved to be a standout athlete. He was made a starter after his third game there, and was named Big Ten freshman of the year in 1992. Voted to the Associated Press All-American team in both 1993 and 1994, he was also chosen most valuable player on the Ohio State team during one of his two seasons. He left school after his sophomore year, and was widely predicted to be one of the top ten NFL draft picks. But though Stringer had begun a long struggle to keep his weight down, by the time the draft round came he had gained thirty pounds. He was the number 24 pick instead, but won a spot on the Minnesota Vikings rookie roster.
At the time, Stringer was just 21 years old and had not even learned to drive. His first season was a rough one: he was dismayed to find that the Vikings were a team
At a Glance…
Born c. 1974, in Warren, OH; died on August 1, 2001, in Mankato, MN; married Kelci, 1998; children: Kodie. Education: Attended Ohio State University, 1992-95.
Career: Played professional football for the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings franchise, 1995-01.
Awards: Named Big Ten freshman of the year, 1992; Associated Press All-American team in 1993, 1994; voted MVP of the Ohio State team.
that relied heavily on passing the ball, while Ohio State had been a running-based team. Twin Cities sportswriters poked fun of him and his weight, but Stringer soon improved and was a starter in 91 out of 93 games during his seasons with the team. Still, he struggled with the fifty pounds he seemed to lose and gain back. After the end of his second season with the Vikings in early 1998, he weighed in at 388. Team management sent him to a weight loss clinic in North Carolina.
But it was Stringer’s personal life that helped him finally find the focus to keep in shape. His Ohio State girlfriend, Kelci, came to join him in Minneapolis. After Kelci became pregnant, the prospect of becoming a father seemed to snap him out of his funk, he explained to Esquire writer Jeanne Marie Laskas. He was seized by the ambition to “’figure out who I am so I can let my child know. Because if I don’t know, he’s gonna be lost.’” At the start of the next season, he had again lost those fifty pounds, and during the season became known for his impressive stamina and ability to play during all four quarters of a game.
That season Stringer signed an extension on his Vikings contract, which gave him a salary of almost $4 million a year. He used some of it to buy his parents a house back in Warren. His talents as a right tackle, one of the most unrewarding positions on the team, continued to improve, and he made the Pro Bowl team during the 2000-01 season. He was a favorite with teammates, known for his sense of humor and pitch-perfect imitations of the Vikings’ coaching staff.
In late July of 2001, Stringer showed up for the Vikings’ first pre-season practice at the Mankato campus of Minnesota State University. A Midwestern heat wave was raging, and the high temperatures proved tough for Stringer that day. During the two-hour Monday session, he vomited and did not finish. A team doctor checked him out, and okayed him to return the next day. On Tuesday the Vikings’ offensive line coach allegedly taunted him with a newspaper photo showing Stringer doubled over the day before. He finished the session that day, but vomited at least three times, a clear warning sign of heat stroke, some say, but not an uncommon occurrence for football players during the grueling pre-season workouts. When it was over, he went to the trailer of the team’s trainer, and appeared disoriented. Losing consciousness, he was rushed to a nearby hospital of the Immanuel St. Joseph’s-Mayo Health System, where doctors worked to save him.
Stringer was suffering from multiple organ failure. At 106 degrees, the body’s organs begin to fail: first the brain and central nervous system cease to function properly, and then the liver, kidneys and, finally, the heart. After several hours of emergency treatment, Stringer’s heart failed and he died. In an unconfirmed report, his body temperature had reportedly reached 108.8 degrees on that day. The Vikings’ coaching staff and team were crushed by the news, and those who had played with him praised him as a teammate. “I never saw him mad, but he was so intense in a game,” former Vikings’ teammate Randall Cunningham told Washington Post writer Ken Denlinger. “He wouldn’t hurt a flea but was a fighter on the field.” Vikings’ coach Dennis Green cried at the press conference announcing Stringer’s death. Following the tragedy, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue immediately ordered all 31 teams in the league to review their training practices.
According to medical experts, Stringer’s size may have been a factor in his death. He was six-foot four inches tall and weighed 335 pounds. The protective gear necessary for football—the pads and helmets—sometimes add another 35 pounds to that. “Big men have a lot more muscle, and they make a lot more heat,” a Minneapolis physician, William O. Roberts, told Washington Post writer Avram Goldstein. “A big man probably has a thicker body-fat layer, so it’s harder to get rid of the heat.” Such deaths had grown increasingly common in the five years prior to Stringer’s death; that same week, Eraste Autin, a University of Florida freshman, also died after football practice. The Washington Post’s Wilbon predicted that Stringer’s death would not significantly alter a troubling situation, and that it would happen again. “Somewhere in America, a young man is going to push himself to finish a drill in mid-afternoon on a 95-degree day because this is what football players do to get themselves in shape, to be a part of the team, to foster camaraderie and earn trust,” Wilbon lamented.
Stringer had hoped to one day finish college and become a high school history teacher, as his Harding High School coach had been. Six months after her husband’s death, Kelci Stringer filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Vikings. According to a writer in Jet, the suit asserted that” had those responsible for his safety and care exercised even a slight amount of care in carrying out their personal duties to Korey, his illnesses and his death could and would have been avoided.”
Esquire, September 2001, p. 150.
Jet, August 20, 2001, p. 50; February 4, 2002, p. 32.
MPLS-St. Paul Magazine, October 2001, p. 36.
Sporting News, August 13, 2001, pp. 6, 52.
Sports Illustrated, February 20, 1995, p. 195; January 18, 1999, p. 74; August 13, 2001, p. 25.
Time, August 13, 2001, p. 66.
U.S. News & World Report, August 13, 2001, p. 9.
Washington Post, August 2, 2001, p. Al, p. A8, p. Dl, p. D9.