The death of Minnesota Vikings right tackle Korey Stringer has been shrouded in controversy since it happened in the summer of 2001.
The 6’4″, 346-lb. Stringer, who succumbed to organ failure stemming from heat stroke, was gone way too soon at just 27 years of age.
It was a pity considering Stringer had earned his first and only Pro Bowl berth a mere six months earlier.
The Vikings also enjoyed one of the finest stretches in franchise history. Their nucleus, consisting of quarterback Daunte Culpepper and wide receivers Cris Carter and Randy Moss, had Super Bowl written all over it.
Alas, it never materialized.
Korey Stringer, the gentle giant who teammates fondly called “Big K,” will live on in the hearts of Minnesota Vikings fans everywhere.
Korey Damont Stringer was born to James and Cathy in Warren, OH on May 8, 1974.
According to WKRC’s Adam Clements and Stephanie Kuzydym, Korey was the second of three siblings. He has a brother named Kevin and a sister named Kim.
The three kids grew up in a small house on the west side of Warren, OH—a city 60 miles east of Cleveland. It wasn’t unusual to see plenty of their neighbors’ kids playing in their yard.
Kim Stringer told WKRC in the summer of 2020 that their parents were people of high character who raised them the right way.
Korey Stringer was the product of a solid family upbringing. Many of his peers considered him a gentle giant. Kim described her brother as somebody who always looked after the needs of others.
“He was giving and so smart,” Kim told WKRC in 2020. “People call him a gentle giant, and it couldn’t be more true. That’s exactly what he was. He would give the shirt off his back if you needed it.”
Stringer played tee-ball—a modified form of baseball for younger children—when he was growing up in the Buckeye State.
Korey wasn’t an ordinary child. He was so big that his mother had to convince other people that her son wasn’t as old as he looked.
In fact, in 1982, Cathy Stringer grew accustomed to bringing Korey’s birth certificate whenever he played tee-ball so she could prove he was just eight years old, per Esquire’s Jeanne Marie Laskas.
Korey had a gargantuan appetite when he was a child. He never stopped eating.
Stringer grew at a rapid rate and when he was 13, he had to ask his dad to stop the car while they were on their way to Detroit, MI because his legs hurt badly.
It turned out his leg bones were growing at an astonishing rate and doctors had to give him support sleeves so his tendons could keep up with the pace.
By the time Korey Stringer was 14 years old, he had grown to 6’1″ and 210 pounds, per Laskas.
Cathy didn’t let her second son play football until he reached junior high school. It was ironic considering football was almost a religion in Northeast Ohio.
Korey Stringer attended Warren G. Harding High School in his hometown. He excelled as an offensive lineman for the Harding Raiders football squad.
Since Stringer’s high school football coach was a history teacher, the former developed a fondness for the subject. It was a passion that carried over into his days in the National Football League—he loved devouring books, particularly biographies.
When Stringer was a high school freshman, his coaches summoned him into their office. They told him his power, agility, and overall upside set him apart from other high school linemen in Ohio. They predicted that he would be on the radars of college scouts in his sophomore season.
As predicted, several big-name college programs knocked on Stringer’s door that year. None of them blew him away. He made it clear that he wanted to play college football not too far from Warren, OH, per Esquire.
Before Stringer made up his mind on what program he’d commit to, his Harding Raiders won the state title in his junior season in 1990.
Stringer showed everybody why he was one of the most highly acclaimed linemen in the state as a senior when he earned consecutive All-State honors.
Unfortunately, those accolades never soothed the painful memories of the Raiders’ tumultuous 1991 season. They fell out of playoff contention a year after they won the state title.
That painful memory lingered in Korey Stringer’s mind well into his NFL career. He always thought about it, per Esquire.
When Stringer’s high school football career ended, he decided to remain in-state and commit to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The school’s proximity—Columbus was just a two-hour drive from Warren—made Stringer’s decision easier.
Stringer evolved into one of the best offensive linemen in the college football ranks in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
College Days With the Ohio State Buckeyes
Korey Stringer attended Ohio State University from 1992 to 1994. He suited up for Ohio State Buckeyes head football coach John Cooper.
Stringer made an immediate impact for the Buckeyes. Cooper named him one of his starting offensive linemen just three games into his freshman season in 1992.
Ohio State had an 8-3 win-loss record during Korey Stringer’s first college football season. Unfortunately, the 15th-ranked Buckeyes fell to the eighth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the 1993 Citrus Bowl, 21-14.
Nevertheless, Stringer earned Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year honors in 1992.
He continued his ascent in the college football ranks in his sophomore season. With Stringer as one of the pillars of the Buckeyes’ offensive line, Ohio State had a 10-1-1 record in 1993.
Stringer helped open up holes for senior running back Raymont Harris in 11th-ranked Ohio State’s 28-21 triumph over the BYU Cougars in the 1993 Holiday Bowl.
Harris, who finished with an impressive 235 rushing yards and three touchdowns, shared 1993 Holiday Bowl MVP honors with BYU Cougars quarterback John Walsh.
For his part, Korey Stringer earned the first of his two consecutive Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year awards.
The Buckeyes won nine games during Stringer’s junior campaign in 1994. They made their second Citrus Bowl appearance in three seasons. Regrettably, 13th-ranked Ohio State lost to the 6th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, 24-17.
It turned out to be Korey Stringer’s final college football game. After Stringer earned Consensus All-American honors following the 1994 NCAA season, he decided to forego his final year of eligibility and declare for the 1995 NFL Draft.
During Stringer’s college days in Ohio’s state capital, he had a good track record with girls on campus. He also met his future wife Kelci when he played for the Buckeyes football team. They had an on-again, off-again relationship when they were in college, per Esquire.
Korey Stringer was continuing to evolve into a fine offensive lineman when he entered the professional ranks in 1995. He became an integral part of a Minnesota Vikings squad that enjoyed one of its finest stretches in franchise history at the turn of the 21st century.
Pro Football Career
The Minnesota Vikings made Korey Stringer the 24th overall selection of the 1995 NFL Draft.
By the time the 1995 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, IN had kicked off, 6’4″ Korey Stringer weighed 348 pounds, per Laskas.
Stringer’s girlfriend Kelci assisted his mother at a draft party she hosted in Ohio. Both Cathy and Kelci hoped the Miami Dolphins or some other team whose city offered various temptations didn’t draft Korey. Both of them knew he would eventually succumb to temptation if that were the case.
They both breathed a sigh of relief when Korey wound up in frigid Minneapolis, MN—a place they felt was conducive to building his character on and off the gridiron.
Korey Stringer didn’t attend the draft party. In Laskas’ words, his parents “were semi-off” when their son joined the pro football ranks in the summer of 1995.
Stringer was at his dad’s home when NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his selection. James, Korey, Kevin, and Korey’s best friend, Maceo, drank Bud Light while they watched two films: The Lion King and Raising Arizona, per Esquire.
Stringer had some issues adjusting to the NFL way of life as a rookie. For instance, he was accustomed to the Ohio State Buckeyes’ run-blocking schemes during his college days.
When he joined the Vikings in 1995, head coach Dennis Green emphasized a pass-oriented offense that revolved around quarterback Warren Moon and wide receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed.
Stringer, who had limited knowledge of pass-blocking techniques, was virtually clueless when he first donned Vikings purple, gold, and white.
The local media began picking on the gargantuan Stringer, who they thought was nothing more than a blubbery youngster and a wasted draft choice.
Worse, Stringer put on more—a lot more—weight. By Laskas’ estimate, Stringer weighed a whopping 388 pounds at a point during his rookie season in the NFL.
The Vikings noticed Stringer’s weight issues so they sent him to a weight-loss center in North Carolina. Stringer promptly denied their request and had two more tattoos inked on his body instead.
Stringer also routinely called his family back home in Ohio while he was alone in Minneapolis hotel rooms to help deal with homesickness.
He acted like a recluse when his pro football career kicked off—he had his phone line cut so people would leave him alone. Whenever he was by himself, he ate and drank beer before passing out.
His family members did their part—they assured him things would get better sooner than later.
Stringer got another tattoo during his second year in the pro football ranks in 1996. The 22-year-old Vikings right tackle had a tattoo artist inscribe the acronym “FTW” (which stood for “F— The World,” per Laskas) above an illustration of the planet earth on his upper right arm.
Stringer was going through his “FTW” stage at that point in his pro football career. He eventually developed into a veteran who looked after the Vikings’ rookie offensive linemen in subsequent years.
The Vikings averaged nine wins in Korey Stringer’s first two NFL seasons from 1995 to 1996. They never made it past the NFL Wild Card Game during that two-year timeframe.
When Stringer entered his third NFL season in 1997, it was evident he still had the skills to succeed as a right tackle at football’s highest level: he had the quickness, balance, and timing. However, he needed more refinement.
Enter Vikings offensive line coach Mike Tice.
Tice, who had previously served as Minnesota’s tight ends coach in the 1996 NFL season, knocked some sense into Stringer’s head.
“You can take yourself from being labeled a fat man, a dud, a flop, just another wasted first-round pick, to being one of the premier athletes of the NFL,” Tice told Stringer (via Esquire). “And you don’t need to do anything except care.”
It was a massive turning point in Korey Stringer’s pro football career. Not only that, but his college sweetheart Kelci had also just moved in with him and dropped the ultimate bombshell.
She was pregnant with their first child.
Before long, Korey Stringer began going to sleep at a decent hour. He also relished Kelci’s home-cooked meals, lost an incredible 50 pounds, and put in the work on the gridiron.
The local media, who were harsh to the plodding kid from Ohio during his first two seasons, noticed the change. Stringer began playing like a Pro Bowler, which he would become following the 2000 NFL season. Thus, the Minneapolis newspapers began dubbing him “mauler,” among other things, per Laskas.
According to Laskas, Stringer would play Al Jarreau music in his car while driving some of his rookie teammates around.
When a teammate once asked Stringer where he could buy a new pair of pants, without hesitation, Stringer told him he would write down the directions to a nearby mall where he could get some.
It was just another day at the office for Korey Stringer. He loved hosting the other Minnesota offensive linemen at his house for barbecues, too.
Stringer also welcomed Vikings rookie quarterback Daunte Culpepper with open arms before the 1999 NFL season. Stringer advised Culpepper not to make a big deal out of having a bad day on the gridiron, per Lindsey Young of the Vikings’ official website.
Korey Stringer also had a heart for random strangers. According to Vikings.com, he once helped a fan change a flat tire on his way home from a game at the Metrodome.
“He was the guy who made you feel like you were his best friend,” Vikings offensive lineman Todd Steussie told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert in 2021. “I guarantee you there were 20 other people on the team that felt the same way.”
23-year-old Korey Stringer became a father to Kodie in February 1998. He went to the tattoo parlor to get inked again. This time around, he had his son’s name permanently etched on his left shoulder.
Things continued looking up for Stringer—he and Kelci tied the knot four months after they welcomed their son into the world. Korey got his bride’s name tattooed on his right pectoral muscle.
Korey Stringer’s hard work had paid massive dividends. The Vikings signed him to a four-year, $18.4 million deal—plus a $4 million signing bonus—on December 24, 1998.
Stringer then bought his mom a house on the east side of his hometown, Warren, OH.
Stringer’s ascent in the pro football ranks coincided with the Vikings’ meteoric rise in the NFC North standings. Dennis Green’s squad averaged 11 wins per year from 1997 to 2000.
The Vikings were so good they even won 15 games in the 1998 NFL campaign. Alas, they lost to Chris Chandler’s Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 NFC Championship Game, 30-27.
Minnesota reached the NFC title game two years later but lost to Tiki Barber’s New York Giants in lopsided fashion, 41-0.
Behind Stringer’s exploits on Minnesota’s offensive line, running back Robert Smith set a team record with 1,521 rushing yards while quarterback Daunte Culpepper passed for 3,937 yards in the 2000 NFL campaign.
It came as no surprise when Korey Stringer earned his first and only Pro Bowl berth that year.
At the time, the Harding Raiders football team was running low on operating expenses. Consequently, one of Stringer’s former coaches asked him if he could reach out to the NFL on their behalf.
Korey’s brother, Kevin Stringer, remembered it like it had happened yesterday. His brother, who had just received his first Pro Bowl check, gave it to his old high school football team, per WKRC.
Stringer’s hometown never heard the story until he tragically passed away six months later.
The Harding Raiders’ current football coaches haven’t found the check that Stringer gave the team more than 20 years earlier. Apparently, their predecessors hid it well somewhere in the school basement.
Korey Stringer was at the peak of his success in the National Football League when unspeakable tragedy struck without warning in 2001.
Korey Stringer’s Controversial And Untimely Death
Korey Stringer reported for Minnesota Vikings training camp in Mankato, MN on July 30, 2001.
When temperatures reached 109°—the highest in team training camp history in a decade—heat exhaustion caused Stringer to vomit and leave practice.
Vikings Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter told Young he ran into Stringer, who his teammates fondly called “Big K,” the following day.
The two discussed Stringer’s physical condition and the new leadership role he expected following the departure of Randall McDaniel to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Another Vikings Hall of Fame wideout, Randy Moss, remembered Stringer stretching his arms wide over the practice bleachers. During their three seasons together from 1998 to 2000, Moss revered Stringer as a great singer and rapper, per Vikings.com.
Little did both Carter and Moss know that these would be their last memories of Korey Stringer.
Although the heat index reached an oppressive 111°, team physicians gave Stringer the go-signal to take the practice field. Although Stringer vomited twice during morning practice, he continued scrimmaging with the team.
At around 11:15 a.m. on July 31, 2001, Stringer did some conditioning exercises before he collapsed to the ground.
Stringer somehow stood up and made his way to an air-conditioned trailer. By the time Stringer had made it inside, he was barely responsive.
An ambulance brought Stringer to nearby Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital. He had a temperature of 108.88° when he arrived.
Sadly, Korey Stringer passed away 13 hours after arriving at the hospital. He was 27 years old. He left behind his wife Kelci and their son Kodie.
According to an autopsy, Stringer’s cause of death was organ failure due to heat stroke.
The Minnesota Vikings retired his number 77 jersey three and a half months later. He also became a member of the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor.
Stringer’s widow Kelci eventually filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL. She argued that the league hadn’t done much to upgrade football equipment and protect players from heat-related disorders, per The Associated Press (via ESPN).
The two sides eventually reached a settlement in January of 2009.
Kelci Stringer joined forces with heat stroke specialist Douglas Casa of the University of Connecticut and established the Korey Stringer Foundation in the spring of 2010.
Its mission is to equip athletes, soldiers, and workers with the tools and knowledge to improve performance, maximize safety, and prevent untimely death, per its official website.
The foundation has also collaborated with the NFL, Gatorade, National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), Camelbak, Kestrel, Mission, and Eagle Pharmaceuticals since its inception.
The Korey Stringer Foundation’s efforts have produced impressive results over the years.
According to data from the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research that ESPN obtained in the summer of 2021, recorded deaths caused by exertional heatstroke have gone down 51% in the past decade.
Casa told Seifert that approximately 75% of high schools in the country have since used cold water immersion tubs to offset the potentially detrimental effects of heat illness. On a wider scale, 38 states have modified their laws to comply with safety precautions.
Stringer’s agent James Gould considered his client a hero.
“Our heroes seem to die very young,” Gould told WKRC in August 2020. “When you ask who Korey is, Korey’s a hero to me.”
Korey Stringer’s son Kodie is now 24 years old and currently works as a music producer in Los Angeles, CA, per Seifert.