By Bobby Mathews, sports editor
Editor’s note: This is an opinion column and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Trussville Tribune.
Usually I write about practice notes in my weekly column, but the death of a young player at Lee-Montgomery has weighed heavily on my mind all week.
Dimitri McKee was a rising senior, and this was supposed to be his year. A 6-feet, 4-inch 384-pound offensive lineman, “Big Meech” was getting looks from major programs including Alabama. My alma mater, Troy, had offered him a scholarship already. He collapsed after practice one day last week and was rushed to an area hospital. McKee was a big, strong kid. He hung on until Friday. And then he died.
Despite the stereotype of hard-as-nails coaches who push their athletes to the limit, modern programs monitor the health and wellness of their players closely. A lot of us who came up and played in the 1980s can remember wind sprints, two-a-days, fewer — if any — water breaks and the daily salt pill. McKee’s situation wasn’t like that. Within minutes of his collapse, coaches were treating him and transporting him to the ER.
The game (to say nothing of practice) has changed. Sports science understands weight training, hydration, and cardio much better than it ever has. Ten years from now, we’ll understand those things even more.
But science isn’t perfect.
McKee’s death immediately reminded me of a situation I personally witnessed in August of 2001. I was on the sidelines for the Geneva Panthers vs. the Geneva County Bulldogs to start the 2001 season, when Brandon Scott Hutcherson reeled in a kickoff for the Bulldogs. He had an opening along the visitor’s side, and he sprinted for it. Unfortunately, the gap closed.
The Panthers were a force in 4A ball at that time. Under head coach Leavy Boutwell, they had won 32 straight regular-season games going into the season. They were up big on the Bulldogs and would go on to win 42-0. But what I remember about the game is that kickoff return.
Hutcherson, a 6-feet, 3-inch junior, was quick. Like at a lot of smaller schools, he played multiple sports, and he was a very good basketball player. He only weighed 167 pounds. On that kickoff, as he turned upfield, two Panthers hit him simultaneously on opposite sides of his chest.
He never got up. Paramedics were at the game, and they rushed onto the field. Even though they were there within moments of that big hit, it was too late. The force of the tackles and the slightness of Hutcherson’s frame combined to burst his aorta.
A young man was gone, and his teammates, his school, and his community was forever marked by it. The Bulldogs didn’t recover that season, going 1-9. It didn’t matter what their level of athletic talent was. They were mourning.
I know the Lee-Montgomery family will be mourning Dimitri McKee, too.
You look at these kids with their shoulder pads and helmets and they look larger than life. And I know that here in The Tribune’s readership area that there are high expectations for every team.
But there are human beings inside those uniforms. These are boys — just kids, really — who want to represent their team, their school and their community in the best way they can. The coaches in this area know how to get the best out of their talent, and they know how to take care of those young players.
That’s not to say that unforeseen circumstances can’t happen. We’ve already seen that with Dimitri McKee’s death. Keep a good thought for these kids as you attend Friday night games this season. They’re not warriors on a battlefield. They’re not grown men, even though some of them look grown. They’re teenage boys. They’re each someone’s child.
Remember that when you look at the incredible things they can do on the football field.
Bobby Mathews is sports editor of The Trussville Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @bobbymathews on Twitter.