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Death of Teenager Isn’t Talk of the (Small) Town

The silence resonates in Kirklin.

In the heat of summer or the cool of fall, Kirklin is a quiet place. There is a small restaurant, the Lone Pine Lodge, but it is not a place that bustles. People say it may close soon. There is one pizzeria. There are churches. Kirklin Christian. Kirklin Presbyterian. Kirklin Wesleyan.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 27, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 27, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
High school football--A Saturday Sports story misstated the results of an investigation into the death of a Clinton Central High School football player. There was no written report.

There is one stoplight, one bank, a gas station. And there are antique shops. In a town of 707 people, 283 families, it seems as if there is an antique shop for everyone. Rambling, wood-fronted homes, tidy clapboard and brick houses line the main road, Route 38. Most are surrounded by corn fields.

That is all there is to Kirklin. Not even a McDonald’s. The center of everything is the country school in Michigantown that educates children from the surrounding small towns, including Kirklin. Clinton Central High School has pageants and parades, plays and musicals. But most of all, it has its sports teams. The social life of central Clinton County is provided by the Bulldogs, by the basketball players and soccer players and most of all by its football players.

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Much of Indiana is all about basketball. Clinton Central is about football.

And so it is understandable to some why, more than four months after the tragedy, on the quiet streets of Kirklin, on the still streets of Michigantown, there is so little said about a young man named Travis Stowers.

Outside Clinton County, all that is known of Stowers comes from an obituary. When he died, he was a junior at Clinton Central, where the football Bulldogs mirror Kirklin and Michigantown and central Clinton County. The players are small but strong. The coach is the king, a man who does not run a democracy. The football parents are loyal and proud.

Stowers, 17, participated in livestock judging, public speaking and agricultural demonstrations with the Future Farmers of America. He was a member of the Kirklin Christian Church youth group, the 4-H and the Bulldog football team.

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Ask anyone around here and you’ll hear the same thing: Stowers was a nice young man, a good Christian and a tribute to his church. You’ll hear he was a good student, a polite teenager, a pleasure to know.

But you’ll not hear much about why this healthy, 17-year-old died of heatstroke while practicing on the football field July 31, one of at least 17 football-related fatalities this year.

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In many cases, the season’s football deaths have sparked public reviews intended to raise awareness about ways to improve player safety.

Korey Stringer, the Minnesota Viking Pro Bowl player, collapsed at practice on the same day as Stowers’ death and later died from the same cause: heatstroke.

So far, the Minnesota office in charge of workplace safety has produced a 300-page report on the conditions at Vikings practice. A well-known trial attorney is also investigating Stringer’s death and plans to file a $100-million lawsuit on behalf of Stringer’s family at the end of the NFL season.

There has already been a lawsuit filed and reports issued in the death of Northwestern’s Rashidi Wheeler, who died at football practice three days after Stowers. Already made public is a minute-by-minute account of what happened during the moments before and after Wheeler’s collapse on the field.

Travis Stowers? Nobody knows. Or if they do, they aren’t talking, certainly not in Kirklin or Michigantown.

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Maybe it is because reporters from big cities make people in small Midwestern towns nervous, even though the attempt was merely to understand, not indict. When athletes die, the question is always “why?” In the wake of this year’s multiple football tragedies, the fewest answers to that question come in the Travis Stowers case.

Stowers’ parents, Alan and Sherry, have declined to talk about their oldest son.

School Principal Ron Dunn and Athletic Director Linda Barnett at first said Stowers died of a brain aneurysm and that his death was unrelated to football practice. They said they would withhold further comment until after the autopsy results were released. Since the release, however, they haven’t returned repeated phone calls.

This summer, three people close to the program said they had been told Coach George Gilbert withheld water from the players on the afternoon that Stowers died as punishment for poor performance.

Gilbert, who had said over the summer that he wouldn’t comment on what happened at the request of his supervisor and Stowers’ family, called those reports “falsehoods.... I wouldn’t still be working here if I were so stupid to have done something as inappropriate as not giving a kid a water break.”

Stowers died on a 90-degree afternoon, one of those humid Midwestern days.

When emergency medical personnel arrived from Frankfort, eight miles away, they found the 220-pound Stowers sitting in a cold shower, surrounded by ice packs.

Marion County deputy coroner Frances Kelly said that there was never any indication that anything but heatstroke caused Stowers to register a body temperature of 108.

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An investigation into Stowers’ death was completed by Dunn, Barnett, Kathryn Cook, a school board attorney, and Max Rodibaugh, a school board member.

There is a written report, but it has not been made public.

Cook, who said she conducted “extensive” interviews with witnesses, said there is no reason to believe anything improper took place. She said she was unaware of rumors that water breaks may have been withheld.

“As far as any specific findings,” Cook says, “I’m not at liberty to disclose them.... But I can say that the standard practices that are recommended in regards to practicing in heat were followed, and the details I heard over and over again confirmed that and fit together in a way that I believe was trustworthy. There was not a disregard for water.”

The Clinton Central Bulldogs finished 7-4 and lost, 50-8, to their cross-county rivals, Clinton Prairie, in the second round of the Indiana playoffs. The season was not triumphant, but it was not terrible.

It was played, of course, without Stowers, a 5-foot-11 lineman whose father, Alan, and uncle, David--an all-state offensive lineman in 1993--had played football for the Bulldogs. His younger brothers, Clayton and Jared, are already in the Bulldog pipeline.

Stowers’ parents only want privacy, Cook said.

“They don’t understand why anyone needs to know about Travis,” Cook said. “Their grief is still fresh, and to talk about Travis is something they just don’t want to do. They are trying to move on. They have two other sons. They need to heal.”

One individual with close ties to the team said Travis had a twin brother who died at an early age, that Alan and Sherry Stowers believed Travis would die young too, and considered him a blessing from God for the 17 years they had him. But others believe that the Stowerses, who supported Gilbert so strongly at first, have some doubts now about what happened to their son, but don’t know how or even if they should speak of those doubts.

What is clear, however, is that their desire for privacy had been safeguarded by a quiet silence, a determination in a small Midwest town, that it is no one’s business what happened to Travis Stowers.

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At Travis’ funeral, Gilbert was asked to speak to the 500 who overflowed the Kirklin Christian Church. Among his remarks, Gilbert said that he and Travis’ parents had taken comfort in a quote from Civil War Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Gilbert said that “Jackson was a deeply religious man and he said: ‘God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave.’ Travis lived only 17 years but he lived them bravely!”

The parent of a Clinton Central High student said when she heard those words spoken by Gilbert, “I felt a chill. It seemed as if the coach were saying God had decided a 17-year-old boy should die at football practice so it’s OK. I’d like to ask somebody what’s so brave about dying of heatstroke.”

But such questions are rare in this small, quiet place, where people go about their lives, outsiders are looked upon with suspicion and the football coach remains royalty.

In the aftermath of the season of football tragedies, lawsuits, finger pointing and name-calling are the norm. The book is closed on Travis Stowers’ death.

In Kirklin, that’s the norm.


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