Remembering The Death of Korey Stringer, 20 Years Later

The summer of 2001 was just like every summer I had experienced before. I was in between second and third grade, and like most kids, the two-and-a-half-month summer vacation felt like it lasted forever. I spent every day with my sisters playing outside with friends around the neighborhood. Whether it was football, basketball, capture the flag, or playing on the playground, I was soaking up the summer weather without a care in the world.

And who could blame me? Up until that point, I had been fortunate to have never experienced any tragedy in my life. No family members had died and there was no national tragedy that had hit home with me yet (this was just prior to 9/11).

Even at this young age, I was already an avid football fan and was watching almost every Vikings game that I could. Because of this, I became familiar with most of the team roster. When the Vikings starting lineups were announced during games, I’d always point out right tackle Korey Stringer to my dad. “That guy has crazy hair!” I’d exclaim, every single week, probably annoying my dad each time, admiring his awesome dreadlocks. Add in the fact that the guy with the crazy hair was also a damn good player, being selected to his first Pro Bowl following the 2000 season, and Stringer was one of my favorite players on the Vikings.

So, on the morning of August 1, 2001, as I was sleeping in as I had done all summer, I woke up to my dad gently shaking me awake. In a haze, I looked down at him off my bunk bed.

“Hey,” Dad said gently, knowing I was still trying to fully wake up. “Korey Stringer died.”

The news took a second to process.

“Korey Stringer?” I repeated, finally becoming alert.

“Yeah, the guy with the hair,” Dad replied somberly.

I knew what death was, but I didn’t know how to grasp what I had just been told. When you’re eight years old, the athletes you look up to seem superhuman and invincible. To hear that a player, someone I was just watching seven months earlier, had passed away, was surreal.

Stringer had died from heatstroke. On June 30, he vomited three times during a training camp practice. Stringer was determined to finish practice the following day. He again vomited during practice but returned to finish. He even did some work after practice. But when he hit a blocking bag, he fell to his back. Stringer’s internal body heat would hit over 108 degrees, and he would die in the early hours of August 1.

This news slowly trickled in, as things did back then. If Stringer’s death wasn’t surreal enough, it was the Vikings’ press conference that made everything hit home for me. Head coach Dennis Green and star receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss all gave emotional speeches. But it was Moss, the talented yet moody, young star that provided the lasting impact for fans everywhere. For the first time, Moss let down his hard exterior, openly weeping as TV cameras were on him.

The Vikings would roll through the preseason, going 4-0, very obviously playing for Stringer in the process. There were moments of silence before games, the retirement of Stringer’s jersey, and a “77” decal the team wore throughout the 2001 campaign to remember his legacy.

Unfortunately, the 2001 Minnesota Vikings finished 5-11, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995, Stringer’s first season in purple. Green would resign late in the season. Carter would briefly retire after the season, and the decade-long success of the Vikings would hit a rocky patch as they wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 2004.

The Vikings honored Stringer during their night practice on Saturday night.

For me, Stringer’s death was the first time that football, and life, started to feel more real. The way my heroes were reacting to their teammate’s death was just so…human. Players crying in front of cameras let down a wall of invincibility that I had always perceived them with.

That Christmas, I got Madden 2002, the first time I had ever owned the current season’s edition of the video game. I played the game a lot, and I played a ton of the franchise mode. After every season of the game, I had to make roster decisions. Players would come and go, and to me, I could replace any of them with another up-and-comer.

For whatever it was worth, and even though it was just a video game, I always made it a point to keep Korey Stringer on the team. To me, it was how I kept his legacy going even after death. 20 years later, his impact is still felt and remembered across the league.