Jason Stinson has no insight into last summer’s drowning death of 13-year-old Southlake swim team member Elise Cerami, or the actions of the assistant coach expected to ensure the safety of the teen and her teammates during their pre-dawn practice sessions.
Yet the former Kentucky high school football coach is one person who has lived through the ceaseless panic and fear after being charged in connection with the death of an athlete.
He is now joined by Tracey Boyd, a former assistant coach with a club swim team owned by the Carroll school district. Boyd was indicted June 29 on charges of abandoning/endangering of a child by criminal negligence, a state jail felony.
“You’re terrified, literally terrified,” Stinson said in a phone interview Saturday morning from Louisville, Ky. “You realize this is not about money, it’s not about losing a coaching job, this is about going to prison; not jail, prison. Here I am, 36, being investigated for the death of one of my players, and I’m thinking I’m going to prison.”
Married and a father of a toddler and a 1-year-old at the time, Stinson was indicted on a charge of reckless homicide in the 2008 death of 15-year-old sophomore Max Gilpin, who collapsed during football practice on a 94-degree August afternoon. He died three days later of heat stroke. Painted by prosecutors as a coach who physically overextended his players and denied Gilpin water, Stinson — who said he and his staff followed stricter safety guidelines than even the state of Kentucky mandated at the time — was acquitted in September 2009 by a jury that needed 90 minutes to render its decision. He would have faced up to 10 years in prison.
“I feel what that coach is going through, it’s absolutely awful,” Stinson said. “Not only is it awful to have been arrested, she lost lost one of her swimmers, that’s the tough part, and the parents lost their child.”
While no records are kept on such cases, Star-Telegram research indicates that Stinson and Boyd, at least in recent years, are the only two coaches ever indicted in connection with the death of an athlete. Stinson said he knows of no others.
The two cases are obviously dissimilar in sport and circumstance, but the evidence in Boyd’s case will likely be weighed in the same manner as Stinson’s: Were the coach’s actions criminally negligent?
Southlake police and the Tarrant County district attorney’s office have declined to comment about what possible criminal actions Boyd took. What is known is that Cerami, a strong swimmer, sank unnoticed to the bottom of the pool at Carroll’s Aquatic Center.
If the case goes to trial it will surely be watched closely by USA Swimming, which has 18,951 registered coaches working with 3,011 teams nationwide, but also by coaches from youth sports through high school and college who are often tasked with overseeing the safety of dozens of players at once.
For most coaches, a career of long hours and mostly modest pay is a passion more than a job. They often form lasting bonds with their athletes and can spend more time in-season with their players than their own families. Stinson, now an assistant principal at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, where he was the football coach when Gilpin collapsed, knew the student since the eighth grade and had him in his Web Design class, “third row, first seat,” Stinson said.
Player safety is always a concern — especially in the heat of August in Texas but also elsewhere because players collapsing during steamy practices seem an annual occurrence, including a heat-stroke death in Florida this month — but facing criminal charges in the event of an unforeseen tragedy was never a consideration.
“It’s skating a fine line between criminal charges and civil suits. That’s a fine line,” Stinson said. “But I believe if you have rules and regulations, it’s a simple ask: What would 12 normal, regular people that step in that jury box think? Are they going to think it’s unreasonable to leave young ladies in a pool? Was there malfeasance? Did you do something that could have possibly caused someone’s death?”
‘Need to take a step back’
News of Boyd’s indictment traveled quickly through the local swimming community. Mid-Cities/Arlington Swimming coach Brian Dangelmaier said he knows the Cerami family and the Southlake coach facing charges.
“It is a horrible tragedy, absolute horrible tragedy from every aspect of this,” Dangelmair said. “I am quite surprised there was an indictment, I had never heard of that before. It is unusual. I’m trying to process this right now, it’s certainly disturbing. We do take responsibility for these athletes in the water, and we are a big part of their lives, so a tragedy like this is extra horrible, and to have a situation with legal issues is really surprising, and I need to take a step back and really process it.”
While it is highly unusual for a coach to be charged in the event of a tragic injury or death, cause of death in drownings is almost always ruled an accident, and indictments are rare. Over the last two years, Wade Walls, a Fort Worth Police Department investigator, said there have been about 10 child drownings in Fort Worth. None resulted in charges. According to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office, in 2016, one drowning death was ruled a homicide. That deceased was found to have had a weight tied around their neck.
Boyd’s Dallas-based attorney, Dan Hagood, said he expects a civil lawsuit to be filed, if one hasn’t been already, but noted, “to jack this up to a criminal case, I haven’t seen the facts that support that.”
He said Boyd was “devastated” by the drowning death.
I feel what that coach is going through, it’s absolutely awful.
Jason Stinson, former coach
Forensic pathologist J.C. Downs Upshaw, the founder and president of forensX, LLC in Savannah, Ga., said it is not unusual for a medical examiner to determine a death to be accidental and the district attorney to file charges.
“The thing that needs to be explained is how the girl ended up in the pool and why she drowned,” Upshaw said. “There’s probably three separate questions there. Any 13-year-old that ends up in water, how did they get there? Second, why didn’t she call for help — was she unable to yell, was she immediately under the water, did something happen that prevented her? Then, why couldn’t she extricate herself?
“It becomes, what is reasonable in terms of a coach’s responsibility to supervise?” Upshaw continued. “That’s not something I can answer.”
In 2009, noted sports attorney Robert J. Romano wrote that “it has long been established in intercollegiate and high school athletics that schools, together with the coaches they employ, are not responsible for ensuring the health and safety of student-athletes.” However, he added, “Courts have determined that even though schools and coaches are not strictly liable for player injuries, they do have a duty to their players and must do everything practical to minimize the risk of injury to players under their control.”
Boyd, who has no criminal history, has a court date scheduled for Tuesday.
‘We need to back off’
Joseph Heath, the head football coach at Fort Worth’s Young Men’s Leadership Academy, was an assistant at Fort Worth’s Southwest High School in 2009. He clearly recalled Stinson’s indictment.
“We had a meeting, and our head coach [the retired Lanny Trammell] said we need to back off. If a kid says they’re tired, believe them, take them out. I’m not going to jail,” Heath recalled Trammell telling his coaching staff. “If [players] have pre-existing conditions and they didn’t catch it and the doctors didn’t catch it, it’s scary.”
In Stinson’s case, defense medical experts told the jury that a combination of the heat, the use of the dietary supplement creatine and the amphetamine Adderall, an attention deficit disorder drug, plus Gilpin’s being ill that day, were the main factors in the boy’s body temperature reaching 107 degrees — and his death.
“It makes you fearful, it makes you fearful of coaching sometimes,” Stinson said. “We had safety regulations in 2008 that were taking place on our football field that weren’t mandated” by the state of Kentucky until 2010.
“And I don’t know that [swimming] coach’s situation, but if you were a coach and had rules and regulations in place, if you don’t follow those rules and regulations and a player gets hurt or passes away, the coach could be negligent.”
Joshua High School football coach Mike Burt certainly believed his coaches and training staff followed protocol when junior varsity football player Aaron Singleton suffered a seizure in November during a game in Cleburne and died the next day.
Even while Singleton was being attended to on the sideline, the game continued. Burt, who was not at the game, rushed to the hospital.
“You go through all the different emotions, you’re in a state of shock, then, of course, the grief and it’s all happening so fast,” Burt said. “There’s nothing worse for me, personally, than going into an emergency room and one of your kids is in a tough situation.”
‘There’s no perfect system’
Such a tragic scene is amplified now as football teams across the state and country, high school and colleges, gear up for the start of practices. The weather forecast for Fort Worth for the next two weeks calls for temperatures mostly in the low 90s, a bit of a break for August, yet still dangerous.
“We’re trying to get as many sets of eyes on everybody at all times,” Heath said. “But there’s no perfect system, sometimes things happen that you can’t control.”
Burt said the tough-guy rituals of his younger playing days, of gobbling salt tablets and taking water breaks only at the coach’s infrequent pleasure, are long gone.
“Through common sense and medical study, we can’t get enough hydration. We have trainers with all of our different groups available with water bottles,” Burt said. “However dog-awful hot it gets, we work 20 minutes, take a break, we have those things built in.”
Stinson, who briefly coached football as an assistant at a different school following his acquittal, said he would like to become a head coach again. He said he shares his story at coaching clinics and conventions around the state of Kentucky.
“Part of it is to train them, part of it is to clear the air with any misperception, but mostly if tragedy occurs, here’s what you need to be aware of,” Stinson said. “Educate coaches, educate parents and make sure we’re keeping our athletes safe. All coaches get into it for the right reason, to help and coach kids.”
Jeff Caplan: (817) 390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan