The unusual ‘sports drink’ and other tricks football players use to beat the heat during early-season games

Jay Ajayi

John Roach | AccuWeather | Sep 24, 2019, 10:50 AM

The NFL is a notorious copycat league with each team “borrowing” whatever works from other teams. So it was no surprise to see the Philadelphia Eagles throw shade, of sorts, on its own players seated on the bench during Sunday’s game in Philly. As the players took a break, team staffers shielded them from the sun with what looked to be the closest thing handy.

Their opponent, the Detroit Lions, was one step ahead, already using canopies they’d brought with them to give their players a break from the sun. Temperatures in Philadelphia reached an in-game high of 88 degrees with an AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperature high of 90.

Lions staff members held the sideline canopies Sunday, something they did in 2018 when the team beat the unrelenting heat and the Miami Dolphins. “I felt a notable difference – as far as temperature-wise – when you were underneath them,” Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford told The Detroit News.

It was a trick Lions coach Matt Patricia passed on to his friend, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, this summer and Belichick’s Patriots did the same thing against the Dolphins this season in Week 2. The Patriots won 43-0 in a game the coach and quarterback Tom Brady each considered the hottest game either could remember.

The effects of heat hit home for the NFL this summer when 32-year-old former NFL player Mitch Petrus died of heatstroke after working outside all day in 90-degree heat in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the AccuWeather RealFeel temperature hit 101 that day. The AccuWeather RealFeel Temperature Guide advises caution at that temperature, warning of the danger of dehydration, heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps if outside for extended periods, and especially while doing strenuous activities.

The NFL sent a video to all 32 teams this summer that reviewed best practices for treating exertional heatstroke. “It is imperative that medical personnel and coaching staffs quickly recognize [the signs of heatstroke] and initiate appropriate care,” said Dr. Douglas J. Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI), in a press release. KSI was founded after Stringer, a Pro Bowl lineman for Minnesota, died of heatstroke in August of 2001.

NFL teams have an array of options to beat the heat during training camps in the summer and even when high temperatures carry into September’s regular season games. Water, Gatorade, orange wedges, Pedialyte, salt pills, pickle juice, and intravenous fluids are among items used to varying degrees by NFL teams.

Wait, pickle juice?

That hydration trick perhaps was first used during the hottest NFL game in history, the 2000 season opener on Sept. 3 between the Eagles and the host Dallas Cowboys. It was 109 degrees at kickoff and Dallas lost a dozen players to heat cramps; the Eagles lost no one.

Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder credited Steve Condon, a college trainer who interned with the Eagles that summer, with the idea. Burkholder studied weather reports all week in advance of the Dallas game and had the team load up on water and sports drinks during practice. On Sunday, he doled out pickle juice, which subsequently was proven scientifically to be more beneficial than water.

“I was worried they might get sick drinking that stuff,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said at the time. “But a lot of them liked it, whatever that says about them.”

Former Eagles running back Jay Ajayi was spotted gulping pickle juice on the sideline while playing for Boise State University in 2014 and spoke about its benefits at the time: “It’s something that allowed me to stay in the games and kept me from cramping and it was very productive for me in seeing my games from 2013 to 2014 when I started using it.” Ajayi added that drinking pickle juice was a hydration strategy he planned to bring with him to the NFL.

Today’s precautions and preparations are a far cry from what football players did decades ago. “When I played high school football, it was taboo to drink water,” Alabama High School Athletic Association Executive Director Steve Savarese told AccuWeather. “We used to take salt pills, we didn’t drink water, and we wore long-sleeve shirts. I don’t know how we survived … Coaches today are much more educated and much better at what they do than years ago.”

So where might NFL’s copycats break out the pickle juice, Pedialyte or canopies this Sunday?

Three games played in potentially heat-impacted areas will take place under retractable domes that likely will be closed so that the air conditioning can do its thing: Tennessee at Atlanta, Carolina at Houston and Seattle at Arizona.

Three others could bring temperature-related troubles, with the Los Angeles Chargers at Miami at 1 p.m. ET, where AccuWeather forecasts a high of 86 with a RealFeel of 93. Cleveland will visit Baltimore at 1 p.m. ET, where the forecast calls for 85 degrees with a RealFeel of 90 and it will be very warm and humid. And Jacksonville will travel to Denver at 2:25 p.m. MT where it will be 81 with a RealFeel of 82.

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