Nashville, Tenn. • Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis has been so focused on football with his new team that he didn’t realize until a few days into training camp just how special the benches on each sideline really are.
Now he takes a couple of minutes whenever possible during practice to sit and cool off.
“It’s great,” said Lewis, who spent the past three years with New England. “It’s real hot ... so whenever you use anything to make you cool down a little bit, I think it’s a great tool. It’s been here for the whole time, but I just realized it like probably last week. So definitely take advantage of that whenever I get a chance.”
Keeping football players cool during the sweltering days of training camp is critical, especially in the wake of the heat-related death of Minnesota offensive tackle Korey Stringer in August 2001 and the June death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair. An attorney for the McNair family says a preliminary death certificate indicates the cause of death was heatstroke.
Old-fashioned tubs filled with water and bags of ice await NFL players, even for teams staying at their headquarters this time of year. A few minutes provides a quick, but very wet, recovery once practice is over.
The Titans and New Orleans Saints both decided to give players a chance to cool off during practice, improving both safety and the workouts.
With a new coach in Mike Vrabel, the Titans put a bench on each side of their three practice fields, giving players a chance to recover when the temperature during morning practices can feel like 90 degrees.
“I don’t think our players have done a good enough job of taking advantage of it, but, we’re trying it out,” Vrabel said.
“Going to Miami and Jacksonville in the early games here, if there’s anything we can do to keep our guys as fresh as possible on the sideline, we’re going to try.”
In hot and humid Jacksonville, the Jaguars have had such cooling benches for years in the shade and near huge fans to use during breaks.
The New Orleans Saints have used a cooling tent for years, even when holding training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. With the tent kept off to the side of the football fields, it wound up too far away for the Saints to slip over during practices.
This August, an 18-wheeler dropped off what looks like a massive storage trailer. Inside, it’s actually a chilly 25 degrees featuring dim lighting and black padded folding chairs.
The Saints can walk in for a quick refresher or sit down to drop the body temperature. If needed, coach Sean Payton can put a whole position group inside at once, especially effective for big men such as offensive or defensive linemen.
“As bodies go in there, it goes to 28,” Payton said. “But it’s almost three times colder than a tent.”
Payton said colleges such as LSU and Alabama are among those already using the cooling trailer. Being in muggy Louisiana, the Saints didn’t have to go far to find a company that could help them out.
Payton said when the temperatures soar, teams can’t cool players down enough. The trailer allows New Orleans to keep the Saints refreshed enough to practice, not just survive until the final horn signals a blissful end.
“You want to not just be running plays, and then you also have an answer if someone is going through a second-level heat illness or God forbid something more serious,” Payton said.
“But, the first thing we want to be able to do is cool the core temperatures down. We’ve always taken a lot of breaks, so we’ve handled the heat well. We’ve had to. But if you went back to Millsaps even, we had a cool tent. This is just much colder.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don’t use cooling benches. For the first time, they are making good use of an indoor practice facility — complete with air conditioning — that was completed earlier this year.
Despite playing in Florida, the Buccaneers had never had an indoor practice field before now, and coach Dirk Koetter has used it liberally.
He’s started several practices outdoors before going inside where the Bucs even installed bleachers for fans attending open sessions. Koetter also keeps the Bucs inside for walkthroughs to avoid the heat.
Just standing near the cooling bench is comfortable enough to watch an entire practice without even needing to sit on the chilled aluminum seats. Titans running back Derrick Henry tested the cooling bench last weekend and liked what he found. A big man at 6-foot-3, Henry says he won’t use it too much to avoid stiffening up.
Walking by to cool off?
“It feels good, especially because it’s hot out here,” Henry said. “It’s camp, and we got to put it to use. It’s a good tool for us to cool our body off, so we’re ready when we go back out there.”