Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • Updated Aug 26, 2017 at 12:30 PM

As a college sophomore at MTSU at right around this time in 1983, just after school had started, I was hanging out on the balcony of my dorm during a thunderstorm.

Later I learned that four miles away, an Oakland High School football player named Jay Hutchinson was walking along a fence as he was coming off the practice field to the gym during that storm and was fatally struck by lightning.

I don’t know if high school teams took precautions against lightning up until then, but Hudson’s death spurred area schools to become extra vigilant about lightning, mainly, get inside when it comes.

Though I forgot his name through the years, I’ve always remembered how that player died whenever high school and other youth sports intersected with thunder and lightning.

A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to excessive heat and the long-term effects of concussions on football players. But lightning is every bit as dangerous. Chances are, it won’t hit you. But while somebody gets lucky in Powerball, someone else gets unlucky with lightning.

That’s why when Mt. Juliet Christian soccer coach Justin Berry emailed his postgame story from Tuesday night detailing how officials and administrators refused to stop a match despite his trainer’s meter showing lightning 1.6 miles away, I got a bit angry reading his account of what happened.

Granted, it was one-sided. And had I been there myself, I might not have felt endangered by the weather. But when the officials basically ignored Berry and his trainer, I knew the memory of Jay Hutchinson had been forgotten. Of course, it’s been 34 years. No one playing today, nor had a lot of coaches or officials currently active, had been born when Jay lost his life way too soon.

Good rules are in place to keep athletes safe from the storm. When a high school official sees lightning or hears thunder, he’s supposed to stop play for a minimum of 30 minutes, or 30 minutes after the last flash of lightning or rumble of thunder.

Years ago, Friendship Christian’s baseball team waited through a delay at Riverdale High in Murfreesboro during the state tournament when lightning was detected. It never rained and I don’t remember actually seeing lightning. Instead of heading for shelter, I remember the players horsing around outside the dugout. They probably should have been made to go inside, but it didn’t appear to be that close, just close enough to register on a meter held by a TSSAA rep, triggering the rule in a marquee event to stop the action. I went outside as well and never felt in danger. In fact, it never occurred to me if it was safe enough for the players to be riding “horseback” on each other playing baseball polo, it was safe enough to actually play the game they were there for.

The Mid-South Conference, of which Cumberland University is a member, has an eight-mile rule in which all outdoor activity stops when lightning is detected within that radius. When I went to Nokes-Lasater Field for the first day of football practice earlier this month, the practice field was empty though the players’ parking area was full. Inside the fieldhouse, the coaches were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Coach Donnie Suber explained the situation. And it wasn’t the coaches in control. Only the trainer could give the okay to go outside, as soon as the storm moved out of the eight-mile circle.

Soccer and football have historically been played in the rain. But more and more that’s going by the wayside. Part of the reason is coaches don’t want extra damage on grass fields. The other is the lightning. Even the National Football League does not challenge lightning. Back-to-back Tampa Bay Buccaneer home games were delayed by lightning last season.

Now, I will be the first to admit I have been an idiot and stayed outside in an attempt to finish mowing the yard when a storm approaches.

I’ve also seen officials pretend not to notice lightning in an attempt to get a game in. There is great pressure to get a game to a conclusion, especially a district contest. And then there was the football game at Friendship last week in which a squall line was approaching from the west. Though the storm was some 30 miles away, thunder could be heard at Pirtle Field as the running clock ticked down the final minutes of the game.

I have no problem with how the scenario at Friendship played out as there was no immediate danger, and I’ve never felt at risk at an area high school game. Of course, that begs the question whether Jay Hutchinson or anyone else felt in danger before being struck. In the case at Friendship, the clock ran out before drastic action had to be taken. If the game had continued beyond that, well, that’s a different story.

At Smith County on Tuesday night, the game wasn’t likely going to end before the storm hit, or even get to halftime. My 8- and 9-year-old daughters play soccer and I wouldn’t want them kept out on a field with a storm approaching. I hope they would have a coach like Justin Berry who had the courage to follow his gut instinct and get his team out of Dodge when he felt danger was coming.

Like so much else about Tuesday night, there’s conflicting information whether the MJCA party was heckled as they left the complex. I hope they weren’t. More importantly, I hope those who choose to stay outside don’t lose the lightning lottery.

It’s often said when a person dies that what’s important is how he lived, not how he died. I don’t know how Jay Hutchinson lived, but how he died should never be forgotten.

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