Three days after he collapsed from heatstroke at practice in 2008, 15-year-old Max Gilpin became one of at least 665 boys since 1931 to die as a result of high school football. Here's what made his case different: The Commonwealth of Kentucky tried to prove Max's coach had a hand in killing him
On the day Max Gilpin ran himself to death before nearly 140 witnesses, he did almost nothing but what he was told. He began complying an hour before dawn, when he stumbled out of bed at his father's command, and he continued through the morning and afternoon behind the brick walls of his school as the August sun parched the valleys of Kentuckiana. After school he surrendered to the will of his football coach, a man he loved as he loved his father, and he hoped this surrender would be enough to please them both.
This is a story about obedience, the kind that gives football and religion their magnetic power. Max Gilpin was an obedient boy. He was, to borrow a word from his adoring mother, a pleaser, and if he misbehaved, he had four parents to set him straight. They had family meetings, four against one, mother and stepfather and father and stepmother. Max's mother told him to obey his stepmother, and his father told him to obey his stepfather. So he did. And although he hated the Adderall pills—although they flattened his personality, made him smile less, made him want to hurl them off the deck into the backyard—he took them, usually, because they also made him stare at the teacher instead of the ceiling fan.
Max had a girlfriend named Chelsea Scott, a cheerleader with green eyes and shining auburn hair. They were sophomores at Pleasure Ridge Park High in Louisville, and they'd been a couple barely 48 hours. It should have been much longer, but Max couldn't muster the courage to ask her out. Fortunately Chelsea was a modern woman. Since the end of their freshman year she had kept a picture of Max on her phone, with the caption MY BABY, and over the summer, on MySpace, she had asked for and received his cell number. Still he needed encouragement. Finally Chelsea wrote Max a love note, delivered by her best friend, and he understood. That was Monday. Today was Wednesday. He had never taken Chelsea on a date. Instead they commiserated in the halls between periods, and Max complained about football.
In middle school Max's mother, Michele, struggled with Max to put his pads on. He was on the verge of quitting until Michele (head cheerleader, Western High) called his father, Jeff, and put Max on the line, and when the conversation was over, Max was no longer quitting. He did manage to sit out for a couple of years, but at the start of high school Max told his father he was going to play football. And his father (offensive lineman, Butler High) taught him power cleans and leg presses and rhythmic breathing. He bought Max protein shakes, and his mother bought him the muscle-building substance creatine. Max tried to quit again that year, but his parents talked him out of it, and gradually he came to embrace football. By August 2008, just after his 15th birthday, he stood 6'2" and weighed 216 pounds. He had gained about 26 pounds in six months and had begun wearing sleeveless shirts to show off his muscles.
One thing stood in the way of Max Gilpin and football greatness. Football demands a certain brutality, a hunger to smash the other guy's face, and Max had no such hunger. He liked to fix things—decks, porch swings, BMX bikes—and he talked about opening a mechanic's shop on Miami Beach. He didn't want to smash anything, even though he was an offensive tackle and his job was knocking people down. The coaches told him to get angry, get mean, use that helmet, quit being so nice. Max tried very hard, and his father saw him improving by the day, but he had a long way to go. In practice, as the linemen took turns facing off to improve their skills, Max stepped aside and let others go in front of him. His girlfriend from freshman year said Max was a true Christian, and this sounds about right. If Jesus had played football, He might have played like Max Gilpin.
Max's football coach also believed in Jesus and lived his life in relentless pursuit of heaven. His name was Jason Stinson, and he sat in the balcony on Sunday mornings at Valley View Church in southwest Louisville with a bible called God's Game Plan on a lap whose wide expanse would barely fit between the door and the center console of his Toyota Camry. Coach Stinson was 6'4" and 300 pounds, and he had been such a fearsome offensive lineman at Louisville that he got an NFL tryout with the Giants before being cut in the preseason of 1996. Now he was 35 years old, with a wife and two children, and he saw the 104 boys on the Panthers' football team as sons of a different kind. They came to him for money when they couldn't afford lunch, counsel when their girlfriends turned up pregnant, new shoes when their old ones wore out. And although his coaching job paid only $20 a day on top of his salary as a Web design teacher, he never turned them away, because he knew God was watching. The coach liked to say he wasn't making football players; he was making good daddies, good citizens, good taxpayers. So he was more surprised than anyone when his conduct at football practice on Aug. 20, 2008, became the subject of one of the largest investigations in the history of the Louisville Metro Police Department.
It was a miserable practice. The temperature hit 94¬∫ that day, and the boys, after staying up late all summer, came in exhausted from a new routine that had them out of bed long before sunrise. Around 5:30 that afternoon, after team stretching and individual drills, Coach Stinson called the 22 varsity starters to join him near the center of the field. This is how he remembers it:
"Offense, huddle up!" he said. "Defense, put your skivvies on!" (Skivvies in this case were jerseys of an alternate color.) The boys either ignored him or didn't hear.
"OFFENSE, HUDDLE UP! DEFENSE, PUT YOUR SKIVVIES ON!"
Still they did not come. Perhaps they were distracted by the girls' soccer game beginning on the next field.
"OFFENSE, HUDDLE UP! DEFENSE, PUT YOUR SKIVVIES ON!"
Only four or five boys obeyed. Later, several witnesses would use the words mad and angry to describe Stinson's reaction. But Stinson insisted he was not angry. He was just disappointed, and now he needed a new plan.
"ON THE LINE!" he bellowed. "IF WE'RE NOT GONNA PRACTICE, WE'RE GONNA RUN."
The command applied to everyone, not just the starters, and the boys got on the line. They knew what was coming. In helmets and pads they would run across the field and back and across the field and back again, a total of about 220 yards, or one eighth of a mile. Each of these runs counted as a single gasser, and today the boys were starting the gassers earlier and running them longer than usual. Yes, it was good preparation for the hard running they would do in games. But this early running was also widely seen as a punishment. Max Gilpin was not a varsity starter and therefore not one of those who had misbehaved. He was, however, a poor runner. And so he quietly accepted a punishment he had not earned, which fell harder on him than on those who deserved it.
The events of the next 50 minutes are a case study in the limits of eyewitness testimony. No video footage surfaced in the police investigation, and the roughly 140 spectators told stories that ranged from the plausible to the mathematically impossible. They couldn't even agree on whether Stinson was wearing a whistle that day. Nevertheless, a parade of witnesses said they heard the coach say one thing that set the tone for the gassers. It seems strange that Stinson still denies saying it to the runners, because it wasn't just soccer parents who said they heard it. It wasn't just assistant coaches and disgruntled players. In the opening statement at Stinson's trial for the reckless homicide of Max Gilpin, the coach's own defense attorney acknowledged, "Jason said it."
And what Jason Stinson said to his players, according to many people, was this: "WE'RE GONNA RUN TILL SOMEBODY QUITS."
Football coaches have a long and rich tradition of daring their players to quit. It probably didn't start with Bear Bryant, the most revered college coach of all time, but he did it as well as anyone. Bryant believed any boy who quit on him in practice would quit on him in the fourth quarter, and he did horrible things to make sure no quitter ever got the chance. In 1954, his first year with Texas A&M, he led 111 young men to a thorn-infested wilderness camp in Junction, Texas, and proceeded to nearly kill them. Bryant didn't believe in injuries, because he'd once played a whole game on a broken leg, and he didn't believe in water breaks, because he thought his boys would be tougher without them. His radical expectations are described in the following passage from Jim Dent's 1999 book, The Junction Boys.
"All of these boys need some time off," [trainer Smokey Harper] said. "Some got bad injuries in there, Coach. Joe Boring can barely walk with that bum knee, and another boy looks like he's got a fractured ankle."
Bryant nodded and said nothing. Then he swung open the screen door and marched into the trainers' room. He jabbed at the air with his index finger and shouted, "You, you, you, you, you, you, and you! Get your butts dressed for practice. Be on the field in ten minutes. I want no more excuses out of you candy asses!"
So the boys limped out for more punishment. Players who collapsed from heat exhaustion had to crawl to the sideline or be dragged off by student assistants. When a boy fell face-first to the ground from heatstroke, Bryant kicked his fallen body. Sure enough, he ran off all the quitters. Seventy-six boys quit during those 10 days, and another 10 were too badly hurt to play in the opener. The Aggies went 1--9 that season, but two years later they went undefeated and finished fifth in the national rankings. The survivors of Bryant's hell camp discovered that nothing in life could stop them. They became doctors, lawyers, engineers, chief executives. By the time of their team reunion 25 years later, many were millionaires.
In the genealogy of football coaches, you can draw a line from Bear Bryant straight down to Jason Stinson. Bryant begat Howard Schnellenberger (he played tight end for the Bear at Kentucky in the 1950s and served as his assistant coach at Alabama from '61 to '65), and Schnellenberger coached Stinson at Louisville in the early 1990s. In '89 Schnellenberger recruited a lineman named Thomas Sedam. According to Sedam, water was never available at practices. Schnellenberger, who declined to comment for SI, made his boys run gassers, just as Bryant had and Stinson would, and when thirsty players took mouthfuls of the ice that was kept to cool down injuries, coaches forced them to spit it out. One day Sedam collapsed from heatstroke after running too much. He spent almost a month in the hospital and later sued Schnellenberger for negligence. They settled out of court.
After Louisville, Schnellenberger went to Oklahoma. He resigned at the end of a mediocre season during which two players quit because of heat illness. One of them, defensive tackle Brian Ailey, nearly died of heatstroke. He filed his own lawsuit, but Schnellenberger said water was not restricted at his practices, and a federal judge threw the case out for lack of evidence. According to a 1996 Tulsa World story, "Schnellenberger dismissed Ailey's incident as unfortunate but insisted his coaching techniques were not out of line. He points out that he had been doing business like that for years." Schnellenberger, who coached Miami to a national championship in 1983, is still doing business, at 76, as coach at Florida Atlantic.
Sedam played for Schnellenberger before Jason Stinson did; Ailey played after. You might expect Stinson to tell stories similar to theirs. He will not. He says the coach was demanding but never abusive and always provided sufficient water at practice. He says he would play for Schnellenberger again. And if this is hard to understand, remember that the Junction Boys—that is, the ones who survived Junction—would almost certainly play for Bear Bryant again. They wore those 10 days like a badge of honor for the rest of their lives. Jason Stinson says his father made him a man. But when Stinson left the care of Howard Schnellenberger, he considered himself even more of a man.
In the '60s at Southern High in Louisville there was another football coach who didn't believe in injuries. When a player broke his thumb and said, "Coach, I broke my thumb," and it was all swollen and purple, the coach told him to spit on it and get back in the game. Around that time a boy named David Stengel decided to tend his horses instead of attending the coach's unofficial spring practice, and when the coach punished him that fall by giving him old equipment and shoes that didn't fit, David quit.
Nearly 50 years later, after David Stengel became Louisville's chief prosecutor, after he had Jason Stinson indicted for the death of Max Gilpin, he would say Stinson reminded him of his old football coach. And when Stengel got e-mails from around the world telling him what a "sissy" he was, going after a football coach for doing nothing but coaching football, well, Stengel begged to differ. In his younger days he could bench-press 370 pounds, and he kept a picture of the Mohawk OV-1A in which he flew 127 combat missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, including one in which he was shot down. Football is a pale imitation of war. Sissy? David Stengel would love to see you walk through this door and say that.
About a month after the fatal practice, under questioning by the police, Coach Stinson made a casual remark that explains quite a lot about Max Gilpin's collapse. "Now, but Max is the kind of kid," he said, "if you don't see him, you wouldn't notice him." Even though he was 6'2" and 216 pounds, Max was not a commanding presence. He could be almost invisible. And visibility made a crucial difference on that sweltering afternoon.
The boys were allowed to run at their own pace, but they had an incentive to run as hard as they could. It went beyond merely impressing the coaches. If Stinson noticed a boy giving extraordinary effort, he might dismiss him from the running and let him cool off in the shade. One of the team's best runners was Antonio Calloway, a safety who also sprinted for the track team, and Antonio ran angry that day. First he was angry at the other boys for goofing off, and then he was angry at Stinson for not rewarding him with a license to quit. At some point the soccer spectators heard a horrible sound, something deep and strange and very loud, which turned out to be Antonio Calloway gasping for breath. His reward for blind obedience was a precautionary trip to the hospital.
The boys ran on. They took turns. The smaller players ran while the big boys (including Max) rested, and then they switched. Most players agree that Max ran hard, but there is a wide range of stories about how the running affected him. Some say he had no trouble breathing. Others say he vomited, fell to his knees, struggled for breath. There were many reports of players vomiting, and one boy said he heard others crying. None of this was enough to make Stinson call off the drill. "If we stop the drill every time somebody got hurt," he said later in a deposition for the wrongful-death suit filed by Max's parents, "we wouldn't have any drills left to do."
MICHAEL COOPER, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: Well, let's say that we have players, one or more, that are vomiting—
STINSON: No, sir.
COOPER: —would you stop a drill?
STINSON: No, sir.
COOPER: One or more players that are vomiting, another player had to quit the drill because he had passed out.
STINSON: No, sir.
COOPER: Players vomiting, passing out, they want water, do you quit the drill?
STINSON: No, sir. I mean, you can keep building on this all day long and keep adding up, and eventually, yes, you quit the drill, but it's not to the point of if a child is vomiting do we stop the drill, no, sir.
COOPER: I'm just trying to figure out, is there something you as head coach can tell me if I saw these events occur with my players I would stop the drill because I think they're getting overheated. Can you give me any scenario where that would occur?
STINSON: Not that I can think of.
In any case, Stinson had other things to worry about. Some boys were running and some were not. Understand: This was not an elite squad. If you wanted to play football at Pleasure Ridge Park High, you just showed up and took the physical. You might not get playing time, but at least you'd get a jersey, and some boys just wanted that jersey. They were called the jersey-wearers, and they had no intention of overworking themselves. As one of them later told the police, "We wasn't really runnin' for real, we was walkin' and laughin' and stuff, 'cause we wasn't about to run for no hour in the sun." (Not that it was even an hour; the best estimates put the running at 35 to 40 minutes.)
Those boys demanded attention, and Stinson gave it to them. He called them away from the group and supervised them in a drill called up-downs, which involved running in place and then dropping to the ground and then running in place some more. Even at this they performed badly, which, according to the court transcript, led the coach to say something like, "We're gonna do 'em right or we're gonna do 'em until somebody quits." Today the coach says that this statement might have been misconstrued as applying to all the players, including the ones still running gassers. He claims to have said at the beginning of gassers, "If you don't want to do what we're asking you to do, please feel free to quit. We'll still be friends, we'll still high-five you in the hallway, but you can't play football." All this may be true, but there is a loose consensus that the boys running the gassers believed Stinson was telling them to keep running until someone quit the team.
Which someone did.
Now, a word about quitting. Stinson believed that if you quit in practice, you wouldn't just quit in the fourth quarter. You would quit in life. Bear Bryant actually wanted the boys to quit—that is, he wanted the quitters to quit—but Stinson, despite appearances, actually wanted to keep them. If they stayed on the football team, he kept his leverage. He could make sure they made good grades and behaved in class. He could keep trying to mold them into good daddies, good citizens, good taxpayers. And if they really did quit—if they called his bluff—he lost that leverage. Which is why he tried to bring them back. A player named David Englert had quit three times, and Stinson always talked him into returning. Sure enough, he was in the up-down group, the incorrigible group, and sure enough, he quit again. And sure enough, a few days later he was back on the team. (Not long after that, he quit for the last time.) Later he wrote Stinson a letter that read, in part, "You have always been there for me in everything I do. I haven't been able to sleep for the past couple of days, I walk around with a lump in my throat.... I love you.... Please pray for me as I pray for you."
Jason Stinson didn't believe in quitting on anyone. After all, Jesus never quit on the dying thief.
But there is another way to see David Englert, and in this light he needs neither mercy nor forgiveness. What he deserves is a round of applause. "I congratulated the child for quitting the team," a soccer spectator named Timothy Moreschi testified at Stinson's trial. "I said, 'You're the only man out on that field.'"
Take a moment now to go with Max Gilpin as he runs the last mile of his life.
Early in the running, before the damage is irreversible, he can look to the right through the face mask of his steaming helmet and see his father watching him. And this sight must give him the courage to run harder. Max is a pleaser, remember, and he wants to make his father proud. His father played lineman too, for Butler High, class of '80, and Butler won the Kentucky Class 4A championship his senior year. But his father quit football before that season and missed his chance at immortality.
Max has a shot at starting for the jayvee, and what he lacks in meanness he can try to make up in determination. At a scrimmage just last Friday, his father saw him take on a powerful defensive end from another school and play better than he'd ever played: "Max shut this kid down. He knocked him down two or three times. He turned him. He got under him. This kid never made another tackle or another play that I saw. In fact, Max played so well that they put him on defense. He's never played defense on a high school level. He didn't even know the plays. They just told him to go for the ball."
Later, when presented with Jeff Gilpin's account of that scrimmage, Stinson will refuse to confirm it. ("Didn't see it happen, didn't hear about it and didn't have any film to review.") Which will leave two ways to interpret the story. Either Jeff Gilpin is imagining things or Coach Stinson is oblivious. And both possibilities leave Max with the same mandate. Either he must close the gap between his actual performance and his father's vision of his performance, which means he must work even harder; or he must play so surpassingly well that Coach Stinson finally takes notice—which means he must work even harder.
Like most sons, Max regards his father with a blend of love and fear. Jeff will later say Max was his best friend. He will talk about driving Max to guitar lessons, about missing the way Max laughed so deeply that his eyes nearly shut. And while both Jeff and Michele want Max to go to college, Max would rather be an auto mechanic just like his father. But in other ways Max is nothing like Jeff. There is some indication that Jeff is capable of violence and coercion. In 1999, when Max was five and his parents had separated, Jeff was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after allegedly punching and bruising his live-in girlfriend. (Records of the case's outcome are no longer on file at the courthouse.) Max's stepmother, Lois Gilpin, will later say Jeff used to slap Max on the back of the head and drag him around by the ear. Jeff will deny all this, but Lois will not be the only one to say Max saw Jeff as a bully. She and Katlin Reichle, who dated Max during freshman year, will say Jeff monitored Max's performance at football practice and, if Max didn't play well enough, left him there and made someone else pick him up. Lois will say Jeff sent Max text messages to express shame in Max's performance. Katlin will say Max told her, "I'm trying my best, but I don't know what more I can do."
All around him now on this August afternoon, Max's teammates find ways to get out of running. Fast ones are dismissed for good effort. Freshmen are dismissed because they're freshmen. Some of the fat kids are barely running. The goof-offs are pulled out to do up-downs. Max is a slow runner, of course, so running hard doesn't make him stand out more. It makes him stand out less. It puts him closer to the middle of the pack. It ensures that he will run the maximum distance at maximum effort. And if he shows signs that something is wrong—if he vomits or falls to his knees or stands up only with the help of his teammates, as witnesses will later testify at the trial—Stinson doesn't notice. He's distracted by the jersey-wearing goof-offs who can't even do the up-downs right.
Max's temperature is rising to catastrophic levels, to 105¬∫, 107¬∫, perhaps 109¬∫. The cells in his body are melting. And so, when his father sees him cross the finish line on the last sprint, fall on all fours, stand again, stagger and fall for the last time, there's no telling whether Max hears Stinson say the mystifying line that marks the end of practice. The Panthers have run until someone quit, and the quitter is not Max Gilpin. "DING, DING, DING!" the coach yells as David Englert quits once again. "WE HAVE A WINNER!"
Looking back on the practice two years later, the coach noticed a major coincidence. David Englert quit at nearly the precise moment that Max's group finished what was always going to be the last sprint. Neither event caused the other, Stinson said. He insisted that practice would have ended regardless, because everyone knew that the activity bus was on a fixed schedule and many of the boys had to ride it home.
Then, more coincidences. The coach wasn't looking when Max collapsed. Nor did he notice anything was wrong when Max's father ran onto the field, or when at least three assistant coaches hustled to Max's side, or when the athletic director drove toward Max on a John Deere utility cart. A lot was happening right then, with nearly 100 players leaving the field and a soccer game proceeding a few feet away. The coach was busy. He had a team meeting to conduct, but first he had several goof-offs to yell at once again. They'd gone straight to the water, which was forbidden until after the meeting, and he had to round them up. And then he had to yell at everyone for the terrible practice and tell them they didn't deserve to be Panthers, which half of them probably didn't. All this time Max's cells were melting. Numerous soccer parents turned around to witness the practice, because Stinson was loud and the soccer game was boring. Some saw fit to inform the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, whose reporting led to the criminal investigation.
There followed a series of natural disasters that coincided with milestones in the investigation. On Sept. 14, the day Stinson gave his statement to the police, rare winds battered Louisville with hurricane force and caused four deaths from falling timber. The following January, just after Stinson was indicted for reckless homicide, an ice storm came upon Kentucky and deprived nearly half a million homes and businesses of electricity; at least 55 people were killed. And on Aug. 4, 2009, the day Stinson was indicted for wanton endangerment in the same case, many residents of Louisville fled to their rooftops to escape a rising flood. Stinson worked with his church to ease the suffering of the victims. Nevertheless he saw these events as acts of a God who cared enough to keep him off the front page.
In general the people of Pleasure Ridge Park took Stinson's side. They knew him to be a good Christian man and trusted him with their boys because their boys loved Coach Stinson. They held a silent auction to help pay for his legal defense, and Howard Schnellenberger donated an autographed football. A barbecue joint called Mark's Feed Store promised to donate a portion of its profits over several nights to Stinson's cause, and so many people showed up that one night the place had to shut down because the food was all gone. Stinson's friend Rodney Daugherty wrote a well-researched book—Factors Unknown: The Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. David Jason Stinson & Football—that redirected blame from Stinson to the prosecutors who brought the case. Pleasure Ridge Park High principal David Johnson (free safety, Louisville) summed up the feeling of many others when he said he knew Stinson did nothing wrong because "I know what kind of person he is."
It wasn't just that Stinson did nothing wrong. Stinson could do nothing wrong. Max's mother said that Stinson's wife told her around the time of Max's funeral that the coach was on "suicide watch." Not possible, according to Stinson, because he didn't blame himself for Max's death, and he would never consider suicide—that would be quitting. A soccer mom swore at the trial that Stinson said something to the boys during the running that no one else seemed to remember: "Come on, who's going to be the sacrificial lamb?" No way, Stinson says. He would never say that, because he knows of only one sacrificial lamb. And that lamb's name is Jesus.
But football is America's game, and more than 1,000 boys and men have been killed since 1931 as a direct result of playing football. No other team sport comes close. The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research measured catastrophic injuries in all high school fall sports from 1982 to 2009 and found that 97.1% of them occurred in football. And it must be no coincidence that in an '08 Gallup poll, more Americans chose football as their favorite sport to watch than chose baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, auto racing, golf and tennis combined. We can say we watch for the precision of the quarterbacks, the grace of the receivers, the speed of the running backs, but this is only part of the truth. We watch because football players are warriors, because they are brave, because all that throwing and catching and running is done under threat of lethal violence. There is such a thing as touch football, and such a thing as flag football. Both are safe. No one pays to watch them.
You've got a man looking at prison time for being a football coach," defense attorney Alex Dathorne (cornerback, Miami Palmetto Senior High) said in his closing argument on Sept. 17, 2009. "Jason Stinson on August the 20th of 2008 did absolutely nothing different than every coach in this county, in this Commonwealth, in this country, was doing on that day."
This was part of the reason Dathorne and his law partner, Brian Butler (rabid fan, Notre Dame), two of the best defense attorneys in Louisville, took Stinson's case at a discounted rate. They believed the game of football was on criminal trial and a loss would be disastrous. Coaches would quit by the hundreds for fear of prosecution. The media coverage already had them terrified. During jury selection, one potential juror (a coach, apparently of another sport) said, "Literally every practice, if we're running, I make a point of telling the kids up front so people can hear me, 'You can stop, you can go on or you can do whatever you want on your own.'"
Before the trial Stengel put his chance of winning a conviction at less than 10%, based on how the people of Louisville felt about football. "Football coaches," he said, "are right up there with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost." This is why, during jury selection, his assistants did their best to identify football bias. They asked all fantasy football players to raise their hands. They tried to weed out college football season-ticket holders. They tried—and failed miserably—to stock the jury with women. And women might not have helped them anyway. Max's girlfriend's mother, Misty Scott, had marinated so long in football culture that she could stand in her driveway one afternoon and say about Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's departure: "Louisville football went down the drain so fast that we're still washing the red out of the sink."
More to the point, the commonwealth had a fragile case. Stinson would later look back at the 13 days of the trial and decide his attorneys had racked up 12 wins, no losses and one tie. So why did Stengel prosecute a case he knew he would lose? There are two prevalent theories, and Stengel denies them both. One says he got the indictment before he understood the science of what happened to Max, and by that time it was too late to back out because the national media had descended. The other theory says the prosecution was a kind of public-service announcement intended to make coaches be more careful. Which it did. Some coaches reconsidered their use of negative motivation, and the state passed regulations that required more first-aid training and better education on heat illness.
The prosecutors tried to prove that Stinson withheld water that day, but one player after another said he'd taken several water breaks, including one right before the sprints. Besides, dehydration wasn't a factor in Max's death. Three doctors said so: Bill Smock, who usually testifies for the prosecution in Louisville; George Nichols, who founded the state medical examiner's office in Kentucky; and Dan Danzl, a co-author of the hallowed textbook Rosen's Emergency Medicine. The best the prosecution's kidney expert could do was to conclude from the records that Max was just dehydrated enough to be thirsty.
When the commonwealth attacked Stinson for his failure to help Max, the defense was ready. Stinson's attorneys showed that several other people quickly came to Max's aid and did the same things—applying ice packs, dousing him with water, removing his socks, calling 911 after a few minutes—that Stinson would have done if he'd been there. Both sides agreed that the presence of a certified athletic trainer might have improved Max's chances, but trainers are expensive, and the school was not required to have one at the practice.
The doctors agreed that Max died of complications from exertional heatstroke. This, of course, raised a crucial question: Why was Max the only player to die? The defense proposed an answer.
Tests from the hospital showed amphetamines in Max's system. They were most likely from the Adderall, the drug Max reluctantly took for better focus in school. And while it's impossible for Adderall alone to have caused Max's collapse—he'd been taking it for a year, and other boys at the practice also took Adderall—it could have slightly raised his body temperature.
There was also the creatine. It's not a banned substance, but the NCAA forbids colleges to distribute it to athletes. Max's mother said she hadn't bought it for him since March or April, but a friend testified that he saw Max taking creatine a week or two before his collapse. While scientists disagree on the possibility of side effects, a 2002 article in the journal Neurosurgery said there is credible evidence that creatine might contribute to heatstroke in some people.
But Max had probably been on both Adderall and creatine at other practices, some of them hotter than 94¬∫. Something had to be different on Aug. 20.
The prosecutors had a theory. The difference was Coach Stinson. He lost his temper and forced the boys to run much harder than usual.
Except they weren't running for that long. Many football teams practice twice a day in the summer. There was just one practice that day, and it was a short one. The boys ran sprints for no more than 40 minutes; actually it was much less, because they were in two alternating groups. Each group ran for about 20 minutes. Some boys gave implausibly high estimates for the number of 220-yard sprints they ran in that time period—as many as 32. It probably seemed like 32, but Coach Stinson always said it was 12, and the math works in his favor. No one was allowed to start running until everyone in the other group had finished, including the players who were barely running; that would mean Max ran about a mile and a half, the majority of it in helmet and pads.
What was extraordinary, then, about Aug. 20? The defense had another answer: By the time he got to practice, Max was already sick.
Here the medical experts fought to a draw. They argued over his white blood cells, his elevated lymphocytes, but it all came down to guesswork. The numbers neither proved nor disproved that he had a viral infection. They could be made to support either belief.
That left eyewitnesses, who were also problematic because of their vested interests in the outcome. Max's parents, who said he wasn't sick that day, were seeking more than $19 million in a wrongful-death suit. Some of Stinson's players, who said Max was dragging along and complaining that he didn't feel well, felt a powerful loyalty to their coach. Two girls who knew Max contradicted each other, even though they were best friends: One, who was friends with Max's mother at the time of the trial, said he had seemed all right at lunch; the other, whose parents openly supported Stinson, said Max was obviously sick after school.
The truth was in there somewhere.
The defense called Lois Gilpin.
You should know a few things about Lois, the stepmother who saw Max before school on the day of his collapse. She and Jeff Gilpin had gone through an unpleasant separation. A judge granted her a restraining order against him after she said Jeff had threatened to drag her out of the house by her hair. She was also attending Stinson's church, Valley View, and she had accepted $700 from its benevolence fund to help pay her mortgage.
But when a prosecutor suggested that Lois had pulled a new story out of thin air to help Stinson, there was evidence to suggest otherwise. Two days after Max was hospitalized, a doctor wrote in the record, "New history, that patient may not have been feeling well on day of collapse." Lois swore that her story had remained the same all along, and the doctor's note seemed to corroborate it.
This is the story Lois Gilpin told under oath about Max's last morning at home: "I asked him if he wanted juice. He was to take his medicine, his Adderall that morning. And he was cranky. And I leaned over and I kissed his head, and he told me he had a headache and he was sick and he was hot. Jeff walked in and told him, 'We're going to be late, you need to get up; you need to get your butt in gear and you need to get to school.'
"He just said he didn't feel good, he had a headache. He didn't talk back to his dad. You know, when I kissed him, I told him he was hot. You know, I imagine he would have liked to have stayed home. I wish he would have stayed home. But he did what his dad said."
Later, when he looked back at his son's last practice, Jeff Gilpin was filled with pride and wonder. "I underestimated this kid, big-time," he said. "His heart. Can you imagine the fortitude it took to keep running out there?"
It is almost unimaginable. Never mind how long Max actually ran. What matters is that he ran far longer than he should have, despite what must have been terrible pain, even though quitting would have saved his life. And in dying he probably saved the lives of several boys who might otherwise suffer the same fate.
Cold blue twilight, Salvation Army parking lot. A very large man stands by a folding table, digging for clean underwear in a cardboard box. When he finds the white briefs, he holds them up, like a merchant or an auctioneer, until a poor man steps out of the crowd to claim them.
"Got a large sweater! Anybody? Anybody?" The large man's voice carries across the parking lot. "Long-sleeve, flannel! Nah, we're outta socks right now. Still lookin'. All right, brother. You have a good one."
All right, brother. This is how the men of Valley View Church talk. They come downtown every Monday night to feed and clothe the needy, and Jason Stinson comes with them because he is a free man. To him this is an act of godly obedience, not atonement, because Stinson is not guilty of anything. The jury said so. It took less than 90 minutes to decide.
When the giving is done, Stinson walks into the Texas Roadhouse off Dixie Highway, less than a mile from Max Gilpin's grave, and orders an eight-ounce sirloin, medium, and a baked potato with butter and sour cream. Every few minutes a high school girl comes over to smile and say hello. While he was under indictment, Stinson was placed in an administrative position away from children. But he is back in the classroom now, coaching basketball this fall. He plans to coach football again. Another man might have moved to another school or even another town, but that would be quitting. Anyway, there was no need. Stinson's stature in Pleasure Ridge Park is probably greater now than it was before. His supporters rose up with him for victory.
"We busted 'em in the teeth," Stinson says, referring to the criminal trial, by way of saying he and his lawyers would have done the same thing in the civil trial if it had gone that far. It was the school's insurance companies that insisted on the $1.75 million settlement in September with Max Gilpin's parents, he says. Purely a business decision. No one admitted anything.
During a bench conference at the criminal trial, Stinson's own attorney, Dathorne, said to the judge, "I think you can almost take judicial notice that Jason Stinson was being a jerk that day. Everybody said that." Now, at the roadhouse, when Stinson is asked to acknowledge the truth of this statement, he refuses. "I don't know what Alex meant by that," he says. "You'd have to ask him."
After interviews with more than 125 witnesses, the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) delivered their own report on the Max Gilpin incident. It was so favorable to Stinson that Stengel called it "the biggest cover-up since Watergate." Nevertheless, school superintendent Sheldon Berman had a few things to say about Stinson's conduct:
"While the evidence did not reveal any violation of ... JCPS rules, I am extremely troubled—actually I am outraged—by the statement made that day by head coach Jason Stinson—that the running would end when someone quit the team. While this kind of negative motivation may be used in some amateur and even professional sports, that kind of culture has absolutely no place in JCPS' athletic programs."
The superintendent established an annual seminar that trains coaches not to motivate their players the way Stinson did that day. Stinson has attended it twice. Now, at the roadhouse, when asked to acknowledge that the seminar is a result of what he did on Aug. 20, 2008, he seems genuinely unaware of the connection. And if this is hard to believe, consider the story he gave in his civil deposition about a brief encounter with Max Gilpin after Max had finished the running that killed him.
At the trial, one of Stinson's own witnesses said Max leaned over and breathed heavily after the running. Another defense witness said Max fell and beat the ground in anger. Other players said Max couldn't even finish the running and had to be propped up. One of them said he returned from the final sprint to find Max on his hands and knees. Soon after that, he said, Max appeared to be foaming at the mouth, and his face was pale blue. But in the civil deposition, Stinson gave this account:
STINSON: Yes, sir. He had finished conditioning and was headed where he was needed to go.
PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: He really wasn't in any distress as far as you could see?
STINSON: As far as I could tell.
For a few minutes on that Wednesday, after school and before football practice, no one told Max Gilpin what to do. And what he did was a total surprise. He was walking to the bus with Chelsea Scott, the green-eyed cheerleader who became his girlfriend through sheer will and persistence, and he was wearing one of his favorite outfits: a pair of yellow plaid shorts and a butter-yellow Aeropostale T-shirt that nicely set off the tan of his arms. He may have done what he did because he knew she wanted it, but perhaps this one time he decided to do what he wanted, just because. Anyway, he bent down and hugged her, close enough to smell the vanilla in her Victoria's Secret perfume, and then he kissed her mouth, for at least two seconds, as if he knew exactly what he was doing. It was their first kiss, and of course their last: a glimmer of the man Max Gilpin was becoming.
Then he walked toward the locker room and returned to obedience. He never stopped obeying, not even at the hospital. He hung on for three days, never fully conscious, as his body fell apart from the inside. His best friend, Zach Deacon, told him, "Hang in there. Keep fighting. I love you." And Max kept fighting. His heart rate seemed to rise when people prayed. A nurse asked him to squeeze her hand, which he did, and said, "Max, if you can hear me, wiggle your toes." And he did.
Toward the end he had blood in his mouth and tears on his cheeks, and he finally got permission to quit. His mother whispered into his ear, "It's O.K., Max. You can let go." A minute later he was gone.
Football demands a certain bru tality, a hunger to smash the other guy's face, and Max had no such hunger. The coaches told him to get angry, get mean, use that helmet, quit being so nice.
Bear Bryant actually wanted boys to quit. Stinson actually wanted to keep them. If they stayed on the football team, he kept his leverage.
Running hard puts Max closer to the middle of the pack. It ensures that he will run the maximum distance at maximum effort.
Before the trial Stengel put his chances of winning a conviction at 10%, based on how the people of Louisville felt about football.
Stengel denies the case was a kind of public-service announcement intended to make coaches be more careful. Which it did.
Max ran far longer than he should have, despite what must have been terrible pain, even though quitting would have saved his life.
Photograph by JEFF JENNINGS
THE PLEASER Max was proud of the body he built to play football, but for a long time he was in the game more for others than for himself.
MIKE HAYMAN/THE COURIER-JOURNAL
THE COACH Despite testimony of witnesses to the contrary, Stinson denies he did a single thing wrong on the day Max collapsed.
THE IRON FISTS Bryant (above, in 1955), and Schnellenberger (right, in '95) took tough-minded football coaching to extremes.
[See caption above]
SAM UPSHAW JR./THE COURIER-JOURNAL
THE FATHER Jeff says he was Max's best friend, but others say he pushed Max to excel in the sport Jeff quit when he was in high school.
MICHAEL CLEVENGER/THE COURIER-JOURNAL
THE PROSECUTOR A weightlifter and Vietnam vet, Stengel got e-mails accusing him of being a "sissy" for putting a football coach to trial.