Joe Otero was devastated by the death of Mount Saint Michael football player Dominick Bess last week, and he wasn’t alone — his passing was mourned by the Bronx high school football community and beyond.
Bess collapsed at practice Aug. 22, dying later that day at Montefiore Medical Center. Although he collapsed while running sprints on a hot and humid day, investigators are still trying to figure out what happened to the 14-year-old.
But for Otero, the news hit a little closer to home. That’s because he, like Bess, was a Mountaineer.
“Mount Saint Michael is my alma mater,” Otero said. “I was part of the ‘96 team that won the city championship. Some of the coaches at Mount Saint Michael, we graduated together, so I was talking to them about it. It’s just a very sad situation.”
Otero, like all coaches, already have rules in place to help guard against such tragedies, and it goes far beyond just having water on hand on a hot day.
“Riverdale is completely different from any other school that I worked at,” Otero said. “We take all the necessary steps, and we follow the letter of the law as far as rules, which makes for a very safe environment.”
Otero and his staff have a variety of tools on hand in case a player does feel the effects of the heat, like cooling tubs and even automatic defibrillators on the field.
“Coaches have to carry their ADs with them,” Otero said. “All our coaches are certified in CPR, so God forbid we’re forced to use it, we all know how to perform it.”
Otero adapts his practices depending on the weather, with excessive heat leading to lighter and shorter practices.
“We’re very high on water breaks, keeping hydrated is the most important thing,” said Otero, who had his season-opener last year moved from Saturday to Monday because of excessive heat. “We follow the heat index, and if it’s over 90 degrees, then we don’t use shoulder pads.”
Ryan Rosenzweig, Riverdale’s senior quarterback, heard of the tragedy at Mount Saint Michael, but said he’s secure knowing the Falcons’ coaching and training staffs always are looking out for the players’ health and safety.
“I know they do the right things here at Riverdale and they would never put me in a situation where something would happen to me,” Rosenzweig said. “So I try not to think about the scary stuff too much, because otherwise you’re going to play scared. And if you do play scared, you’re not going to play well, and you probably will get hurt.”
Rosenzweig’s teammate, senior receiver Ernie Robertson, said there are some inherent risks playing football — but not communicating with the coaching staff about your physical condition shouldn’t be one of them.
“I think there is a level of understanding coming into the game that it is dangerous,” Robertson said. “So you’re always conscious of the dangers. But it’s tough thinking about stuff like (Bess’ death) going into a practice or a game, because it can get your mind off the game. But as much as there is some fear of something going wrong, it’s not as big as some people might think it is.”
Like Otero, Fieldston head coach Gus Ornstein was shattered by the news of the Mount Saint Michael tragedy, noting his team was out on the field the same time Bess was stricken.
Ornstein, a Fieldston graduate who is both the school’s head football coach and athletic director, said his players’ safety always has been his top priority.
“Our athletic trainer communicates with all our coaches and kids about hydration, and we’re constantly monitoring the heat index to see whether we need to come in off the field or take more breaks,” Ornstein said. “We’re all over it, and as coaches, we’re constantly monitoring to see if someone is struggling.”
Josh Godosky, Fieldston’s bruising running back and linebacker, said while football is a brutal sport, a player just needs to listen to both his coaches and his own body in order to lessen the odds of injury — or worse.
“The coaches are very careful with us,” Godosky said. “We get a lot of water breaks and the coaches are very vocal about if someone is feeling light-headed then they need to go take a break. While everyone is working hard, you have to be careful, too. But there has to be a balance.
“You have to have an attitude that you’re a football player, you have to be tough, you have to play through things. But then there’s the point where you know if there’s something that you might not be able to fight through. Then you have to go tell the coaches and be honest.”