Family of Fallen Student-Athlete Seeks Changes to Official Guidelines

Nov. 22, 2021, 7:23 p.m. ·

The Geiger Family posing in front of high school stadium with "Home of the Packers" banner across the back of the scoreboard.
Shantel Geiger (left), Aaren Geiger (middle) and Scott Hoffman (right) stand in front of Collin Field in Omaha. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A family is fighting to have heat-related guidelines for student athletes revised after a tragedy claimed one of their own.

On August 10th of this year, 16-year-old, 389-pound Drake Geiger was psyched for his first football practice at Omaha South High School.

Drake’s father, Scott Hoffman says Drake seemed healthy when he dropped him off early for his 4 p.m. practice.

“He was mad the day before that he didn't get to practice because his physical form wasn't signed,” Hoffman said. “So I'd picked it up that day, dropped him off at 3 p.m. well before (practice) because he had to turn it in and I sat outside as he drank a bottle of water and walked in, and I said, ‘Have fun, be tough.’”

The high that day was 92 degrees, well below the 125-degree cutoff for cancelling practice dictated by the Nebraska School Activities Association.

Around 20 minutes after practice started, Hoffman got the call saying Drake had collapsed. Drake was transported to the Nebraska Medical Center where he died later that evening.

Drake and Aaren Geiger Embrace with trees and an American flag in the background. Aaron is in a pink dress holding a bouquet  of pink flowers.
Drake Geiger embraces his sister, Ashlee Geiger. (Photo courtesy of the Geiger family)

Since his passing, the Geiger family has been working to change the NSAA’s heat-related guidelines, including a petition that has gained nearly 27,000 signatures. It was started by Aaren Geiger, Drakes’ sister.

“We can never get Drake back, but the most comforting thing that I could think of was to make a change so that no one else ever has to go through this,” Aaren Geiger said. “No other kids have to lose their life to playing a sport, something that they should be enjoying.”

The petition asks the NSAA to lower the degree threshold to cancel practice, citing one study from the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. According to the study, from 1995-2020, 51 high school football players in the United States died from heatstroke during football-related activity.

The petition also calls for the association to better reflect the heating properties of synthetic or artificial turf, the grass-like substance that is used in sports facilities around the world including Collin Field in Omaha, the outdoor facility where Drake practiced before he collapsed.

University of Nebraska turf specialist Roch Gaussoin explains turf "is usually considered to be synthetic, sometimes with or without an infill, which is either crumb rubber or other materials.”

One big disadvantage of synthetic turf? It’s heating properties.

“Generally, synthetic turf is going to be 35 to 55 degrees warmer than a natural grass field at the same ambient temperature,” Gaussoin said.

Roch Gaussoin photo. He is wearing a dark sweater and glasses.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and turf specialist Roch Gaussoin (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

He said the record was set in Utah, where on a 98-degree day, a field of synthetic turf registered a temperature of 200 degrees.

The petition says at the time of Drake’s collapse, the temperature was 91 degrees with a heat index of 105 degrees. The wording in the petition concludes factoring in synthetic turf, the temperature on the field therefore ranged from 145-175 degrees.

Executive director of the NSAA, Jay Bellar, says there haven’t been any policy changes on heat guidelines since Drake’s death, but notes the issue has become a priority on the national level.

“This is going to be our new campaign, I guess you would call it,” Bellar said. “We've had a campaign on concussions...then we went to heart... Now we're moving to a heat illness because we think that this (has) happened once too many times.”

He says part of that campaign will be investing $900,000 into getting schools advanced thermometers that can differentiate between natural and synthetic fields. Additionally, he says a sports medicine subcommittee is looking into the issue and will have recommendations later this year.

Jay Bellar in a dark suit and tie looking to his side with a blue background.
NSAA Executive Director Jay Bellar on an episode of Speaking of Nebraska: A COVID-19 Town Hall with Gov. Ricketts (Archive image from Nebraska Public Media News)

“I just think it's just like with the COVID crisis that we're going through right now, and I think we have to listen to the people that know more about it than we do and put in best practices for our kids,” Bellar said. “Because we know that the unfortunate realism to what we're talking about is terrible things can happen even when you're doing things right.”

While Drake’s family is encouraged by movement from the NSAA, they say they’ll keep fighting for an actual change in policy.

“I knew nothing about what the specifics of the heat guidelines were," Scott Hoffman said. "When you finally actually look at them, which all these people that are signing the petition are looking at, it's outrageous. It's not even common sense in my opinion to cancel practice at 120 degrees."

Omaha South High School did not respond to a request for comment.