There's a pill for everything

Updated: December 8, 2004, 1:21 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- They insisted he wouldn't feel a thing. That the pill would pass through his body like the pizza he had devoured a day earlier. But Oklahoma offensive lineman Vince Carter wasn't so sure.

A pill designed by NASA? That gave off a magnetic signal? A pill that, beneath its silicon exterior, housed coils, circuits, crystals and a battery? Crawling along his digestive tract? "It was strange," Carter said. "I was a football player turned lab rat."

But Carter did what he was asked. And for good reason. A year earlier, his participation in an ongoing study by the University of Oklahoma and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) eliminated his troubles with cramping. The same thing happened for teammate Tommie Harris. So when scientists offered the radio-transmitting pill, designed to measure his core temperature deep in the pit of his intestines, he swallowed.

"It was like taking down a little white battery," said Carter, a 6-foot-3, 294-pound center. "It was a little hard to swallow -- took a bit more water than a normal pill. But I got it down. All in the name of science."

It's nothing new at Oklahoma. The Sooners are one of only three schools (North Carolina and Virginia Tech) that use in-helmet sensors to measure the severity of head impacts. And the thermometer pill was just one facet of a one-of-a-kind study between Oklahoma and GSSI. The goal of the project, which began in 2002, is to find football-related answers to heat cramping, heatstroke and heat-induced weight loss.

Do that and keep your best players on the field.

Do that and win more football games.

"And that's something that every coach wants," Oklahoma trainer Scott Anderson said. "So it isn't much of a sales job. Show them what this can do for their team and they buy in. Coach (Bob) Stoops has been behind this since Day 1."

Beyond helping the team, the research is significant given the number of heat-related deaths in football. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 21 football players have died from heat stroke since 1995.

In 2001, Northwestern's Rashidi Wheeler, Florida's Eraste Autin and the Minnesota Vikings' Korey Stringer all died during preseason workouts.

Knock on wood -- we haven't had to deal with anything like that here. But the thing that always gets you is that they're almost always preventable.
Oklahoma trainer Scott Anderson
"Knock on wood -- we haven't had to deal with anything like that here," Anderson said. "But the thing that always gets you is that they're almost always preventable."

The first round of research, conducted in 2002, used sweat patches to analyze the contents of each player's perspiration. It revealed that cramp-prone athletes, such as Carter and Harris, lose about twice as much sodium in their sweat as other players. The loss can be as much as 20 percent of the total body sodium content, equivalent to five to nine teaspoons of salt.

They began working with the temperature pills last year, hoping to find a correlation between a rise in core temperature and cramping. For Carter, it was the strangest part of the experiment.

He took the pill before he went to bed. The next morning, after the Good N' Plenty-like capsule made its way along his digestive track, the technology kicked in. A crystal sensor inside the pill vibrated at a frequency relative to the temperature of the body tissue around it. That created a magnetic frequency, which transmitted that temperature through the body so it could be picked up by a wireless handheld recorder.

Roughly 18 hours after the pill was ingested, it was excreted out of Carter's body. He never felt a thing.

"I had no idea," he said. "Felt totally normal. Except for all these people huddling around with clipboards."

The results were surprising. The temperatures of several players exceeded 100 degrees, one player topping out at 104.

"And it was a fairly mild day," said Dr. Randy Eichner, the team's internist. "But with several of these bigger guys, that doesn't always matter."

This past offseason, using deuterium oxide, a tracer water, the two sides set out to prove that football players lose not only water and fat during the first week of two-a-day practices, but potentially muscle as well.

The overall project is one that GSSI had been hoping to execute for some time, but didn't have a team. The OU training staff, recognizing excessive salt stains on player's jerseys, also had research it wanted to conduct but didn't have the time. Or the sciencific skill. So with the help of Eichner, a member of the Gatorade's Sports Medicine Review Board, the two teams joined forces.

"It worked perfectly," said John Stofan, a senior scientist at GSSI. "There was some historical evidence in terms of cramping, but nothing has ever been real defined in terms of football players. We hope to change that."

Stofan and his staff are still processing the data from the last two seasons, with plans to publish the results in the next few months. Once that happens, talks will begin about where to turn the focus of their study in 2005.

Regardless, it's already helping the Sooners. Coaches, per the study's suggestion, now vary the intensity of two-a-day practices as well as the time of day they're held. And Carter adds salt to all of his drinks.

"Kool-Aid, Gatorade, everything," he said. "And I haven't cramped since. So those guys, they can do whatever they want to me."

Said Stofan: "Vince is a great case. He had issues, we looked into them and he came to understand what he could do to help himself. His case is the reason you do projects like this."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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