Video: Search for answers

Dateline NBC
updated 3/28/2004 11:41:11 PM ET 2004-03-29T04:41:11

What does the American dream mean to you? A great job? A beautiful home? A loving family? The Stringers were living it, a close-knit family of three, in a prosperous tight-knit community. His career wasn't just any career. It brought him fame, respect, and more money than they ever imagined. And then it happened, a deadly accident on the job. The question of who was to blame launched a fierce David and Goliath battle: his wife against his employer.

Kelci Stringer: “They showed a film of him on the local news.  And I've not cried or anything.  And I busted into tears, because I haven't seen him. I miss his smile. and I wish I could reach out and talk to him and see him and that's kind of difficult.”

Kelci Stringer and her husband, pro football player Korey Stringer had it all, a beautiful young son, a big house in Minneapolis, and a $18.6 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Life was good -- until that day in July, 2001 when Korey Stringer died from what his wife says was a sudden but highly preventable illness. In the end, the widow would take on the very institution that gave her family so much: the NFL.

Kelci had seen her husband, Korey, come a long way, from all American college player to all-pro.

Sara James: “You guys were college sweethearts.”

Stringer: “Yes, he was an awesome person. He had to be the funniest person you've ever met.”

The two met at Ohio State. In 1995, he was drafted by Minnesota. Kelci followed him and two years later they married. Through it all, Kelci says this giant of a man was always big of heart. Kelci says her husband was  particularly giving to children, creating his own foundation to help kids learn to read. At home, his life revolved around his 3-year-old son, Kodie.

When Korey went to the Vikings summer training camp in 2001, little did Kelci Stringer know she would never see him again. At the time, Minnesota was in the middle of a blistering heat wave. But despite the heat on July 30, Korey still suited up in full gear with the rest of the Vikings for the first day of training camp. This meant two three-hour practice sessions each day.

On the offensive line, Stringer, number 77 and nickamed "Big K," weighed in at 335 pounds. Kelci says her husband struggled with the heat that first day and told her over the phone he vomited three times. Kelci says despite his rough day, he sounded surprisingly upbeat.

Kelci Stringer: “He was very proud. And He says, ‘No, I finished practice today.’ He's like, ‘I wouldn't let them cart me off.’”  

Day two of training camp was even hotter, 91 degrees, but so humid the national weather service said it felt like 112. Kelci says when Korey went back on the field he was feeling the heat in more ways than one. She says her husband was  ribbed by his coach and teammates about photos which showed him struggling during practice the day before.

Bill McFarland -- a photographer for the Vikings fan magazine -- was there that day and says it was clear something was wrong with Korey.

McFarland: “He was out of step with the other players that he was doing warm-ups with.  And his eyes looked distant.”

McFarland's photos show Korey's jersey soaked with sweat. And then shortly before noon, a photo captured Stringer down on his back on the field.

MCFarland: “He collapsed and was groaning and laying on his back in agony. ”

One of his team mates did notice that Korey was in trouble and summoned help. An assistant trainer was able to get Stringer up and walk him off the field to this air conditioned trailer seen off to the right of the playing field. According to the trainer, he gave Korey some water, but never took his temperature to see if he was overheated. For almost an hour, Stringer lay on the floor mumbling to himself. When he became unresponsive, the trainer called an ambulance.

Stringer: “W hen he arrived at the hospital his body temperature was almost was 108.8.  So can we imagine what it was when he's out there playing?”

Fifteen hours after arriving at the hospital, 27-year-old Korey Stringer was dead from heat stroke, which occurs when the body can't cool itself causing internal organs to fail. It's brought on by soaring temperatures, physical stress, and not getting enough fluid.

Kelci Stringer, now a widow with a three-year-old son couldn't believe it. How could this have happened? The Vikings say they had warned players about the dangers of heatstroke and there  was plenty of water on the field. The team's training doctor echoed a statement made by the head coach that Korey might have just worked himself to death.

Dr. David Knowles: “You know, he's always been a little bit of heavy, and I think he's been working out very hard to try and lose weight coming in here but I think he may have been working himself too hard.”

Stringer: “Well, you know what my question is? Since you care so much about your players, Minnesota NFL, why do you let them work themselves to death?”

Korey's widow was outraged and felt the team was blaming the victim, especially when the Vikings said Korey's death was caused by the diet supplement ehphedra. The FDA. says there have been 155 ephedra associated deaths. One of those was Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Steve Bechler.

In Stringer's case,  a bottle of a supplement called Ripped Fuel, which contains ephedra, was found in his locker, but Stringer's autopsy didn't test for ephedra.

James: “Was Corey using ephedra?”

Stringer: “No. Not to my knowledge.”

James: “Do you think there's any chance that he was doing it without your knowledge?”

Stringer: “I doubt it. Only he would know that.”

She says whether or not her husband was using ephedra, legal at the time but since banned by the NFL, is irrelevant. Either way, she says, her husband died of heatsroke -- and the team could have and should have done more to save him.

James: “You think his death was totally preventable?”

Stringer: “A hundred percent preventable.”

Kelci blames Korey's team for allowing him to get overheated and dehydrated in the first place and then, after he collapsed, ignoring  signs that he was in dire condition and waiting almost an hour before calling 911.

Stringer: “He literally burned to death from the inside out.  And no one can recognize that this was going on?”

Korey's widow was not about to accept what was happening to her and her family. She sued the Vikings, its coaches, and the training camp doctor who said Korey had pushed himself too hard. A judge threw out her claim against the Vikings but she did receive an undisclosed settlement from the training camp physician, though he admitted no wrongdoing.

James:” Were you disappointed, were you angry, were you frustrated?”

Stringer: “I was disappointed and I was motivated at the same time. You know, actually I was more motivated than before because it let me know really that this is a lot bigger and a lot more powerful than just Minnesota.”

So Kelci went even further and sued the entire league.... filing  a wrongful death and class action suit against the NFL on behalf of all players. She's also asking for millions in compensation for the loss of her husband.

James: “You're taking on the NFL?”

Stringer: “Yes.”

James: “Does that feel a little bit like David and Goliath?”

Stringer: “Not to me. I need to expose this and get them to change this.”

No one from the NFL or the Vikings would agree to an on-camera interview to discuss the suit. But the NFL did issued this statement: 

"We share the Stringer family's sadness, but we are disappointed that the response to this tragedy is to file lawsuit after lawsuit...The most recent lawsuit is simply part of a continuing effort to find fault and place blame where none exists."

Stringer: “Quite frankly, I don't need to hear any sympathies.”

In the class action suit, Kelci Stringer calls NFL training camps "modern day sweatshops.”

Stringer: “This is just the culture of the NFL, to push your player.”

James: “Getting him to work harder.

Stringer: “Yes.”

James: “Getting him to get back out there.”

Stringer: “Yes.”

The suit calls for changes in the way these summer camps are run, including better monitoring by doctors and coaches,  no practice during heat waves,  and mandatory water breaks.

Stringer: “Now they say, ‘We have water carts on the side. You can go get water.’  Yeah, right. Yeah, you're going to go over there. That's the culture.”

James: “In other words, if a player goes and gets water, he looks like a wuss.”

Stringer: “He looks weak.  He looks like he can't make it. Suck it up.”

The NFL points out that Stringer is the only player to die from heatstroke in its 84-year history. And it says it's already addressed the training camp issue by giving seminars on the dangers of heatstroke, approving misting systems to cool players down, and suggesting  teams have night practices during heat waves. But Kelci says the NFL needs to do even more and says her lawsuit won't hurt the league but will ensure the safety of the players.

James: “Do you think if your changes are instituted that NFL isn't going to be the rough and tumble, big boys’ game that it is now?”

Stringer: “Of course not. I'm not trying to use my motherly, womanly view of football. “No, I'm not trying to change that one person is dead, and that's enough for me. So something must be done. My personal tragedy is going to be my personal tragedy.\ But no one else has to go through that.”

Recently, the judge who threw out Kelci Stringer's lawsuit against the Vikings ordered her to pay the team's legal expenses amounting to $47,000. Stringer is appealing that suit's dismissal. In the class action suit, lawyers for the NFL say changes at training camps can only be negotiated through collective bargaining between the teams and the players. The NFL has asked that this new lawsuit be thrown out as well.

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