A recent graduate from Ovid-Elsie High School named Chris Fowler started classes this fall at Michigan State University, his days representing the Marauders on the basketball court, football field and golf course now memories as he starts the next chapter of his young adult life.
But his story also will remain a reminder as his high school’s athletic department prepares each year to keep its athletes as safe as possible.
Three years ago next month, Fowler collapsed on the football practice field in cardiac arrest. The then-sophomore was brought back to life by two of his coaches, who revived him with CPR and an AED machine.
There’s no need for athletic director Soni Latz to recount the events of that day when explaining the importance of being ready to respond to a medical crisis – her coaches are well aware of why Fowler survived and understand completely why they too must be prepared.
“Everyone is very aware of what happened and the importance of being trained and knowing what to do, and actually feeling comfortable to step in and administer CPR when needed,” Latz said. “You can feel it’s never going to happen to you, but once it has, it makes you more aware and conscientious to be prepared.”
But Fowler’s story is worth noting on a larger level as varsity coaches at all MHSAA member schools are required this year for the first time to become certified in CPR, and as the largest classes in Coaches Advancement Program history begin course work that includes up to four modules designed to make them aware of health and safety situations that may arise at their schools as well.
The CPR requirement is the most recent addition to an MHSAA thrust toward raising expectations for coaches’ preparedness. The first action of this effort required all assistant and subvarsity coaches at the high school level to complete the same rules and risk minimization meeting requirement as high school varsity head coaches beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
The next action, following the CPR mandate, will require all persons hired as a high school varsity head coach for the first time at an MHSAA member school after July 31, 2016, to have completed the MHSAA’s Coaches Advancement Program Level 1 or Level 2.
In addition, MHSAA member schools this summer received the “Anyone can Save a Life” program, an emergency action plan curriculum designed by the Minnesota State High School League to help teams – guided by their coaches – create procedures for working together during medical emergencies.
“Coaches get asked to do a lot, and even if a school has an athletic trainer or some other health care professional, that person can’t be everywhere all the time. Coaches often are called upon to be prepared for (medical) situations,” said Gayle Thompson, an adjunct assistant professor at Albion College who formerly directed the athletic training program at Western Michigan University and continues to teach CAP sports medicine modules.
“The more (coaches) can learn to handle the situations that can inevitably arise, the better off they’re going to feel in those situations and the better care they’ll be able to offer their athletes. It’s proven that the faster athletes are able to get care, the quicker they’re able to come back to play.”
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep – which has sent a number of coaches through the CAP program – began a focus on heart safety about five years ago after a student-athlete was diagnosed with a heart issue that allowed her to continue to play volleyball and softball, but not basketball. Athletic director Betty Wroubel said that prior to the student’s diagnosis, the school did provide training in CPR, AED use and artificial respiration; however, that situation put coaches and administrators further on the alert.
Her school offers CPR training also to subvarsity and middle school coaches, using a combination of video instruction from the American Red Cross and in-person guidance by members of the school community who are certified to teach those skills. Students at the school also have received training – and it paid off a few years ago when one of them gave CPR to a baby who had stopped breathing at a local shopping mall.
Portage Central scheduled two sessions this fall for its coaches to receive not only CPR certification, but AED training as well. Central was fortunate to have an American Red Cross first-aid trainer in house, teacher Rachel Flachs, who also is close to the athletic side as the girls swimming and diving coach at Mattawan High School.
Central athletic director Joe Wallace said the training was offered not just to varsity head coaches, but every head coach on every level of the program so that “at least we know that at every given practice, every game, we’d have someone recently trained,” he said.
And he was proud of how his coaches immersed themselves in the subject matter.
“They were putting themselves in scenarios to see how it related to their own sports and asking really great questions,” Wallace said. “It was thought provoking.”
The CAP sports medicine modules are designed to do the same as coaches consider the medical situations they could face. They aren’t designed as “medical training,” said Tony Moreno, a professor of kinesiology at Eastern Michigan University and teacher of all four CAP sports medicine modules. Rather, attendees receive an awareness and basic education on common injuries, injury mechanisms and prevention, and how to create an action plan in the event of an injury incident.
The CAP program touches on a variety of safety topics in several of the available seven levels of coach education.
CAP 1 – which is part of the mandate for new coaches beginning next school year – includes “Sports Medicine and First Aid.” Cap 4 has modules titled “Understanding Athlete Development” and “Strength and Conditioning: Designing Your Program.” CAP 5 includes the session, “Peak Health and Performance.” Attendees also have the option of receiving CPR and AED training as an addition to some courses.
With a quick Internet search, coaches have no trouble finding a variety of resources on sports medicine, performance enhancement, nutrition and healthy living regarding young athletes. “However, some of these sources are more credible and scientifically-based in comparison to others,” Moreno said. “CAP strives on an annual basis to continue to update and improve the quality and credibility of this information and in a face-to-face manner where coaches have the opportunity to ask questions about their experiences and specific programs.”
“Having the CAP requirement will only make them better informed. Many have had this kind of information before, but there’s always something new coming,” Thompson added. “I think we do a good job, not of trying to tell them they were wrong, but maybe taking what they’ve known a step further and making them better prepared – empowering them to do their best.”
Wroubel may understand more than most athletic directors the growing list of tasks coaches are asked to accomplish; she’s also one of the winningest volleyball and softball coaches in MHSAA history and continues to guide both Fighting Irish programs.
But she and Wallace both said the CPR mandate isn’t considered another box to check on a to-do list; there’s enthusiasm because of its importance and the opportunity to carry those skills into other areas of community life as well.
Wroubel has served as a coach since 1975 and said this renewed emphasis on coaches having knowledge of sports medicine actually is a return to how things were when she started. Back then, coaches were responsible for being that first line of medical know-how, from taping ankles to providing ice and evaluating when their athletes should make a trip to the doctor’s office.
“When I first started coaching, we didn’t have sports medicine people, trainers, or team doctors other than for football. You did everything yourself,” Wroubel said. “I think everybody got away from that, but I think it’s coming back because a trainer can’t be everywhere.
“It’s healthy and it’s good for kids. … The more of us with emergency skills, the better we’re able to serve our community.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Central coaches receive CPR training earlier this fall. (Middle) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep coaches practice during AED training. (Photos courtesy of school athletic departments.)
There is a crisis in Michigan schools today that centers on one problem:
Not having enough people.
In discussions with school district personnel, we are being told there has never been a more difficult time for finding people than today. All of us are searching high and low to find coaches for athletic teams, and officials, referees and umpires to administer those games in an orderly and safe way. Dig a little deeper, and school districts are desperate to find those willing to serve as substitute teachers and bus drivers.
Because of this current reality, we continue to be dumbfounded over the approval of Public Act 184 this past summer. This created a new set of retirement rules stipulating that a retiring teacher or administrator cannot be rehired to serve as a coach until after a nine-month waiting period. Even more frustrating: Individuals who had served as high school coaches for many years, who retired from the classroom last June but had planned to keep coaching for a few more seasons, are being told they cannot do so. Those coaches are sidelined, and for no sensible reason.
Cheri Ritz has been the varsity softball coach at Wayland High School since 1995. Cheri has won numerous championships, and has been a model coach and great leader of students throughout her career. Cheri retired as a teacher in June and planned to keep coaching the softball team for a few more years, making a small fraction of what her classroom salary was before retirement. Under the “old” retirement law, Cheri could have retired in June and been detached from the district for 30 days, and then returned and worked for the district in any capacity as long as she was making less than 30 percent of her compensation at the time of her retirement. Under PA 184, this scenario can no longer happen.
In the state of Michigan, we have hundreds of recently-retired school people who want to continue to be some of our best coaches, making pennies on the hour for their time. Now they simply aren’t allowed to do so because of a law that had no intention of impacting coaches and school sports. Cheri is just one example. The same issue has found several more longtime, successful coaches including Northville’s golf coach Chris Cronin and cross country & track field’s Steve Porter at Milan High School.
For the past few months, the MHSAA has met with the Office of Retirement Services, representatives from the Governor’s office and even the bill sponsor of PA 184. Every single conversation revealed the fact that coaches were not even part of the discussion when this new retirement law was passed. In other words, recent retirees continuing to coach were not the issue, but yet this new law now treats coaches as some sort of enemy with zero phase-in period, modification or even the ability to seek a waiver of this new law which became effective immediately on July 25, 2022. We have tried to work within the system to seek some commonsense approaches and solutions to this problem, but to no avail as of yet.
We need your help. We need you to contact the Governor’s office and your State Representative and State Senator’s offices. Let them know PA 184 needs to be fixed now. We need to find a way to let these individuals continue to coach and lead our student-athletes. Let them know our kids cannot play their games without individuals who want to coach, and let them know our kids will miss out on learning valuable life lessons if these coaches are not allowed to continue.
And let them know that PA 184 could not have been passed at a worse time given our most valuable resource – people – is at an all-time low.
PHOTO: Wayland softball coach Cheri Ritz, front right, accepts the Division 2 championship trophy in 2015.