Alex Tresniowski
September 07, 2009 12:00 PM

Jeff Gilpin was there when his boy went down. He was there on the sidelines as Max, 15, ran sprints during football practice in 94° heat. He saw Max hunch over and throw up; he watched as Max “fell down, tried to stand up, and collapsed again,” says Gilpin. And he watched teammates carry Max, “his feet dragging and his eyes rolled back in his head.”

Seven days later Gilpin was there when his only son—a burly kid who loved hot rods and his red electric guitar—was buried. It seemed everyone in Pleasure Ridge Park, Ky., showed up to grieve his loss, but now that community is deeply divided by the fallout from Max’s death. This Aug. 31 Jason Stinson, 36, the high school coach who presided over Max’s last practice on Aug. 20, 2008, goes on trial for reckless homicide. He is accused of running an unusually brutal practice and depriving players of water, which prosecutors say caused Max’s death from heatstroke. His close-knit Louisville community is torn between sympathy for the family and a widespread conviction that Stinson did nothing wrong. “I feel bad for Max’s parents, but they should accept this was just an accident,” says Max’s former teammate Charlie Mullennex, 17, who at a recent scrimmage wore a wristband imprinted with “Max” as well as a bracelet supporting Stinson. “Coach doesn’t deserve to go to jail.”

Since 1995, 29 high school football players have died from heatstroke, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research. “It’s 100 percent preventable,” says Max’s mother, Michele Crockett, 47, an elementary school counselor. “But teenagers feel invincible. They push themselves.” Pleasure Ridge Park High has guidelines meant to ensure athletes stay hydrated, and a school investigation cleared Stinson of wrongdoing. But prosecutors argued in a court filing that Stinson was more focused “on punishment and control … than on player safety.” Stinson, who declined comment for this article, has made only one public statement, at a rally in his yard. “I lost one of my boys out there that day,” the devout Christian and father of two said. “That’s a burden I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Max was a shy child who grew up quickly after his parents divorced and began sharing custody when he was 3. Football, says Michele, “gave him self-worth.” Jeff, 46, an auto mechanic, encouraged his interest in sports and was happy to see “he liked Coach Stinson. He was starting to buy into it all.” A 6’2″, 220-lb. offensive lineman, Max was determined to make the starting team. Says Michele: “He was trying to prove something to his coach.”

But at the Aug. 20 practice, Stinson was upset by his team’s lack of hustle and, as he later told police, made them run “about 30 percent more” than normal. Witnesses say he told them to run until one of them quit. After running several sprints and drills, Max, who never asked for water, “started bending over and taking small steps, but he kept moving,” says Jeff. “He didn’t want to let his teammates down.”

Finally Max collapsed. At the hospital his body temperature was 107. He never regained consciousness and died three days later. Lawyers for Stinson, who could face up to five years in jail, are expected to argue that Max’s use of the supplement Creatine could have been a factor, and that the drug Adderall, which Max took for his attention deficit disorder, may also have played a part. That defense infuriates Michele. “I know good people make mistakes, but had [Stinson] just said, ‘I made a mistake,’ I wouldn’t feel this rage,” she says. “Now I want to see him do time.”

Max’s parents say they have become outcasts in town. Michele says people ask her why she doesn’t just move, while Jeff no longer feels comfortable going to Panther games, even though “those kids are the closest tie I have to my son.” Meanwhile there have been a dinner, picnic, auction and golf outing that raised $90,000 toward Stinson’s legal fees. And there is still the firm belief in town that, as the father of one player puts it, Stinson and his coaches “were turning boys into young men.”

Jeff and Michele have filed a wrongful-death suit against Stinson and several coaches and high school officials. They still have Max’s football helmet, but they no longer have his No. 61 red-and-black jersey: They buried their boy in it. “It just seemed appropriate,” says his dad. “Football was him; it’s what he loved. And it’s what he died doing.”

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