It was not enough for Gilman football coach Biff Poggi to hear that his son Jim was most likely going to be fine. Some things, a father needs to see with his own two eyes, and news that your son's kidneys may have been damaged by an offseason football workout certainly isn't easily absorbed over the phone.
That's how Poggi, the head coach of the Greyhounds for the past 14 years, ended up flying to Iowa City, Iowa, last week, and landing right in the middle of a story that was quickly becoming national news. Poggi's son, Jim, a freshman linebacker at the University of Iowa, was one of 13 football players hospitalized after a grueling series of workouts. The players were diagnosed with a condition called rhabdomyolysis, the breaking down of muscle fibers into the blood stream, which can permanently damage the kidneys and liver.
Jim Poggi was released from the hospital Jan. 28, but continues to have his blood work monitored every 48 hours, his father said.
"We're hopeful that he'll be able to resume some activity maybe within the next month, but we don't know yet," Poggi told The Baltimore Sun.
Rhabdomyolysis can be caused by hundreds of different factors, though it's most often diagnosed in instance of burn trauma or crush injuries. But when it occurs in young, healthy people, the cause is typically excessive strenuous exercise without proper hydration. Instances of rhabdomyolysis occurring in football players have made national news several times in recent years. More than a dozen high school football players in McMinnville, Ore., were treated for the condition in August of 2010.
"There's not a lot of literature out on this — reentry [to football practice] or long-term effects — because this is such a rare, rare condition," Poggi said. "You just don't see it much. The only literature about it is from SEAL camp or Marine boot camp. That's because of excessive overexertion."
Jim Poggi and some of his teammates were admitted to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on Jan. 24 after they reported severe soreness and trainers discovered their discolored urine. The pain set in during several days of grueling off-season drills immediately after they returned from their winter break.
Poggi, who flew to Iowa City after Jim told him was going to be hospitalized, took part in a press conference with school officials on Jan. 26, and he told reporters then that Jim was feeling "severe quad pain" on Jan. 20 after a lower-body workout. It lasted over the weekend and through Monday's workout when his urine was discolored and trainers sent him and the other Hawkeyes to the hospital.
"This time of year, if you're a football player, is the time where you're doing the most kind of strenuous work, kind of preparing for spring practice," Poggi said. "And this is the type of rigorous work out [that] is the same everywhere, and I have sent kids that have played for me all over the country to play, and this is what happens."
Iowa officials have called for an investigation into what caused the players to come down with the muscle disorder. Board of Regents President David Miles and Iowa President Sally Mason said Thursday there will be a 90-day investigation by independent medical experts.
Biff Poggi said there were no performance-enhancing substances involved. He said Jim drinks a protein supplement but nothing more.
"Every one of those kids did a complete drug test when they were in the hospital which came back completely normal and those results were released by the university," Poggi said. "They did them for supplements, steroids and every other thing. ... There's no culpability to the athletes at all."
Poggi said the only thing the 13 kids had in common was that they all finished the workout, which involved sets of squats, then leg lifts with a weight sled. Only 15 of the 56 football players were able to finish the workout, and 13 of them ended up hospitalized.
"The other guys begged off — pulled muscles in the training room, vomiting," Poggi said. "These guys didn't. That's the commonality."
Rhabdomyolysis is actually not that rare, according to Sameer Dixit M.D., a sports medicine specialist in the Department of Orthopedics and the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
"This is definitely not an unheard of thing," said Dixit, who also serves as a team physician for the Orioles. "Even if you have a young, active, healthy group of athletes, it can occur with excessive exertion."
Dixit said it's important for athletic departments to make sure the strength and conditioning coach is knowledgeable enough about understanding how far to push athletes in their workouts, and also when to ease up.
"The people in charge of the workout, it's one of those things where they need to know what they're doing, and know how to properly supervise the exercise," Dixit said. "Are the athletes hydrating consistently? Back in the day, that wasn't something people were always aware of, but by now, it should be something everyone understands, and pays attention to."
Dixit, who previously served as the team physician for the Cal Bears athletic department, said student athletes are sometimes put in a difficult position when it comes to off-season workouts.
"The overall issue [is] knowing your body and knowing how much you can exert yourself," Dixit said. "But you're dealing with a age group that may not know exactly how to do that. I've worked in college football, and everyone knows the saying there is, 'National Championships are won in [the off-season].'"