For those of you who are not sports enthusiasts, let me introduce you to Korey Stringer. Korey Stringer was a 27 year old, 335 pound offensive lineman for the NFL Minnesota Vikings. After attending Ohio State, he was drafted by the Vikings, played right tackle, and made it to the Pro Bowl, the highest individual honor that a football player can achieve. On Tuesday, July 31st, 2001, during an intensive practice session at Minnesota State University’s practice field in stifling heat and humidity, Korey Stringer collapsed and died 15 hours later due to complications from heatstroke. As the story unfolds, in the prior practice session the previous day, Korey struggled and had to be taken off the field by cart. The next day, without benefit of fluid replacement with IV or increased intake, he vomited three times during the morning workout and did not report his condition to the trainers. He collapsed with a body temperature that reached 108.8 degrees.
Korey’s death came as an aftershock to the entire sports world on the heels of a similar death six days earlier of Eraste Autin, an 18 year old freshman at the University of Florida who died of heatstroke during informal workouts. In reaction, sports medicine experts called for more intensive monitoring of player’s fluid intakes under those conditions and the establishment of guidelines to resume practice. NFL executives wondered aloud about the machismo image that makes players push themselves to physical limits that place them at risk in order to win a job. Hidden in all these reactions was one little known piece to the Korey Stringer story. Korey Stringer had a weight problem. Like many people who have a weight problem, there is a great deal of shame that the culture puts on this condition. In the case of Korey Stringer, that shame was the most telling piece and the one factor that most likely contributed to the decisions that led to his death.
Consider what a close friend, major league baseball umpire Eric Gregg, had to say about Stringer’s weight problems: ” I got to know him while attending Duke Diet and Fitness Center where we met several times during the past six years. He would gain and lose weight just like most of usÖ.he knew that his job required him to be in the best shape possible. I remember Korey saying, “If I don’t lose the weight, they’re going to cut me.” Korey was listed as 335 pounds this summerÖI’d guess he was still conscious of not appearing out of shape, especially after missing Monday’s afternoon practiceÖ..Most of us who are overweight frequently do not come forward when we aren’t feeling wellÖ..If a guy in shape gets sick or is over whelmed by the heat, nothing is said. But if an overweight guy gets sick and leaves a practice or game, he’s chastised and the absence is blamed on his weightÖ.there’s tremendous pressure in the NFL to not appear weak. Mix that mentality with the reluctance that those of us who are overweight have to ask for help and it may explain why Stringer didn’t call for a trainer sooner or ask to be removed from practiceÖ” (Sports by Eric Gregg, Metro Weekend, August 3-5, 2001, p. 14).
Who knows what pressure living in a culture obsessed by body weight issues existed in Korey Stringer’s mind? I only know the size of this pressure from listening to the scars that my patient’s carry from the diet wars. If Korey Stringer had half the pressure that my patient’s have, it would have been enough to cause him to hide his vulnerability and not ask for help. I only wish that he did, and hope his death makes us all take another look at the culture of shame and blame that we bring to people who have a weight problem. As Korey Stringer’s story illustrates, it can mean life or death for athletes and non-athletes alike.