J.J. Watt has made a career out of doing damage to NFL quarterbacks, but the Houston Texans defensive end knows that the destruction he's capable of is nothing compared to the dangers of playing football in excessive heat.
Watt has been involved with Gatorade's "Beat the Heat" initiative to make kids aware of the dangers of not drinking enough fluids before, during, and after playing sports in the summer swelter. He recently surprised a Houston-area YMCA to spread the word about heat illness awareness before joining his Texans teammates for their own training camp in oppressive conditions.
"Having been down here in Houston for five years and knowing what this heat is like, knowing what it's like to play outside in this heat," Watt says. "I just try to get the message out to kids so that they make sure they take care of themselves."
Concussions and head injuries may present the greatest long-term risks for football players, but in terms of immediate dangers, heat-related illness presents far more peril during August training camps than any other kind of injury.
Heat stroke remains one of the leading causes of sudden death in sports activities. From 1960 through 2014, there were 140 heat stroke cases that resulted in death, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
Since 1995, 54 football players have died from heat stroke including 42 high school, nine college, and two pro players. Virtually all of those deaths occurred during practice and all of them were preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Being in Houston, having come from Wisconsin, I take it a lot more seriously because it is extremely hot down here," Watt says. "I think that guys are very conscious of it because at this level, you want to be able to perform at the top, every single day, and if you aren't properly hydrated, I don't know if you can do that."
High humidity and physical activity can prevent sweat from evaporating properly, which causes the body temperature to rise. If the body hits 106 degrees or higher, the body is susceptible to heat stroke, which can lead to organ damage or even failure and death. Bodies that are not used to the heat or other conditions are more susceptible to heat stroke.
The symptoms of heat stroke include nausea, dizziness, confusion, weakness, and a rapid pulse rate. According to research, once an athlete has suffered some kind of heat-related illness, he is more likely to have another attack.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine report "Youth Football: Heat Stress and Injury Risk" large sweat loss, insufficient fluid intake, and consequent fluid deficits can impair performance and may increase the risk of heat injury — and even hyperthermia.
Proper hydration can mean the difference between life and death. On Aug. 1, 2001, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Kory Stringer died during practice from complications brought on by heat stroke. His death shocked the NFL and helped to enact policy changes aimed at protecting players and making them more aware of the dangers of hot weather.
"My intake of fluids goes up, especially when the pads come on," Watt says. "You're wearing a helmet, shoulder pads, all these layers and you sweat that much more. The more you sweat, the more you need to put into your body to help you refuel and rehydrate. Gatorade helps you put those things back in your body, the electrolytes and the carbohydrates, to help the recovery process get started."
Not all experts believe sugary, mass-produced drinks are ideal for athletes. According to Harvard Medical School, the best sports drink is still water.
Stringer's death and the reforms it brought heightened awareness of the dangers of heat. Players at all levels are monitored for heat exhaustion and hydration now, particularly early in camp before their bodies have acclimated to the stress and heat of practice.
As a result, heat-related deaths have been on the decline in the last five years. Between 2010-2014 there was an average of 2.6 heat stroke deaths per year, which was down from the 3.6 per year during the previous five-year period 2005-2009.
The work that players like Watt are doing is contributing to that trend.
"Training camp is day after day after day, and while you might feel good on day one," Watt says, "if you don't properly hydrate, you're not going to feel good the next day."