Kentucky high school football coach Jason Stinson called his player's death a "tragedy" but will not take responsibility for it, despite a grieving mother's plea for a direct apology.
"I understand her loss," Stinson told "Good Morning America" in an exclusive interview today. "She lost her son. It's a terrible tragedy ... [but] I cannot sit here today and take responsibility for something I'm not responsible for."
Stinson, 37, was found not guilty last week in a landmark case, the first ever to try a coach for neglectful homicide in the death of a player related to practice workouts.
The teen's mother, Michele Crockett, told CBS's "Early Show" Monday that Stinson should have "stepped up to the plate" and apologized for what happened.
On a scorching day in August 2008, one of Stinson's players at Louisville's Pleasure Ridge Park High School, 15-year-old Max Gilpin, collapsed on the field after running sprints.The boy died three days later in the hospital of organ failure and other heat-related complications.
"People need to understand there's no winner in this case," Stinson said. "It was never Jason Stinson vs. Max Gilpin."
During the trial, Stinson's attorney emphasized the role that Gilpin's medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Adderall, and the nutrition supplement Creatine could have played in the boy's death.
"The lesson we all need to learn from this is we all need to know more about what medication kids are on and what supplements the kids are taking," Stinson's attorney, Brian Butler, said.
Stinson said, "As coaches, we need to know those things. We're trying to make sure this doesn't happen to another family."
Although a civil suit filed by Gilpin's parents against Stinson is pending, Stinson will return to the classroom Thursday and has been given permission by the school district superintendent to coach again.
When Stinson walks back into the school that has stood by him for the more than year-long ordeal, Gilpin won't be far from his mind, Stinson said. The teen was in one of Stinson's classes and used to sit in the first seat of the third row.
"Max is in heaven with Jesus," Stinson said. "That's an awesome thought for me."
Prosecutors Call Coach's Methods 'Barbaric'
During the trial prosecutors said the players were in full gear, and several of them, including Gilpin, were denied water and told to keep running wind sprints -- called "gassers" -- in 94 degree heat, even after vomiting. When Gilpin collapsed, prosecutors said Stinson did nothing and "never got within 10 feet of Max Gilpin."
Prosecutors called the practice "barbaric."
The defense said the boy's death was not Stinson's fault, saying instead that the amphetamine Adderall, the medication that Gilpin was taking to battle attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, caused him to overheat and the workout supplement Creatine also played a role. Gilpin's body temperature reached 107 degrees.
"Amphetimines affect the body's ability to do the thermal regulation," defense attorney Brian Butler said in court Tuesday. "This has been nothing but a witch hunt by these people."
Witnesses also said Gilpin claimed he was feeling sick before practice started and some players testified they were given water before the sprints.
An extensive internal investigation by Jefferson County Public School officials found that the allegation that the players were denied water was "not the case" and that Stinson complied with all state regulations.
Though Stinson tearfully accepted the not guilty verdict, he still faces a civil suit filed by Gilpin's parents.
"Our objective is that this doesn't happen to another child or another family," Crockett told reporters last week.
Stinson: 'I Lost One of My Boys'
"I lost one of my boys, a boy that I loved and a boy that I cared for," Stinson said during a January vigil outside his home organized by his supporters.
Stinson was the first high school coach ever charged with homicide for allegedly working a player to death, but athletes collapsing and dying during the tough summer football workouts are practically an annual occurrence.
An average of four to five athletes have died of heat-related problems every summer for the last 10 years, according to Michael Bergeron, the director of the National Institute for Athletic Health and Performance and Center for Youth Sports and Health, and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota's Sanford School of Medicine.
But he said the problem goes far beyond the four or five who die each year, because countless other young athletes have serious heat-related injuries or problems. But because these other episodes are not fatal, they get little attention.
The most recent case may be Brent Shinn McGhee, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who died Aug. 25, the day after his first practice for the Vernon Middle School football team held in temperatures of more than 100 degrees.
"Putting kids through this to win a football game, it makes no sense," Brent's father, Brock McGhee, told The Associated Press. He said he believes the heat was at least partly the cause of his son's death but said he did not blame the coaches.
Prosecutors said Stinson had been unusually brutal during the practice before Gilpin collapsed, denying Gilpin water and using peer pressure to push his players. He often forced players to keep running until one of them quit, they said.
"A reasonable person should have seen that [a death] could have happened," Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney Dave Stengel said.
Cause of Football Player's Death Disputed
A Jefferson County Public Schools report on Gilpin's death, issued July 1, said Stinson threatened to make his players run wind sprints until somebody quit the team but concluded he did not break district rules.
Despite that finding, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman said, "Such motivational tools are not acceptable."
Dr. William Smock, the head of emergency medicine at the University of Louisville hospital, who has been a frequent prosecution expert witness for the past 25 years, also told prosecutors in March that he believed Gilpin's death was an accident.
Guilty or not, schools and coaches nationwide paid close attention to this case. Nearly a dozen coaches' organizations donated money for Stinson's defense, fearing what a guilty verdict might do to high school sports programs across the country.
"In the days to come, we're going to have a difficult time finding people to coach if situations like this arise," said Mike O'Donnell, a high school football coach in White Plains, N.Y.
Heat Deaths in Youth Football Preventable, Experts Say
With his team, O'Donnell said he takes all the proper precautions during games and practices. Players are given water whenever it's requested, and he carefully times practices to prevent overwork. His staff is also trained in CPR and defibrillation.
But in a tough sport like football, O'Donnell said nothing can guarantee a player's safety.
"It could happen to anyone," said said. "A kid can go down right now as I'm standing here, and you really have no control over it."
According to both the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Athletic Trainers' Association, the risk of heat deaths can be minimized by proper training techniques.
In 2005, the ACSM released a set of specific guidelines for how coaches should handle practices to reduce the risk of heat-related death and injury.
Included among the recommendations were that there should be no two-a-days during the first five days of practice; the use of helmets, shoulder pads and other protective gear should be gradually introduced over the first five days; and practices should be limited to no more than three hours during the first five days.
"What I tell coaches is that everything we recommend for safety is going to help performance," said Bergeron, one of the authors of the guidelines.
"All of these deaths happen on the first one or two days of practice, so it's clearly a case of doing too much too soon," he said. "The thing needs to be progressive. Everything needs to be introduced progressively, and if this is done, the athletes will respond positively."
In June, the NATA released its own set of guidelines, essentially echoing the ACSM report.
Football may get the most attention when it comes to heat-related deaths and injuries, but according to a study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, athletes in other sports and even marching band members are also at risk.
The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research says that "heat-related deaths continue to be the cause of a majority of indirect deaths" in high school sports, including cross-country running and wrestling.