More than 2,000 Dublin high school athletes listened last week as John Underwood spoke about performance and the effects alcohol and other social drugs have on athletes' abilities on and off the field or court.

More than 2,000 Dublin high school athletes listened last week as John Underwood spoke about performance and the effects alcohol and other social drugs have on athletes' abilities on and off the field or court.

"I believe this message is important for every athlete. ... Tune in and learn something," the president of the American Athletic Institute (AAI), former Olympic coach and runner told the students at Dublin Scioto High School in the school's theatre on Oct. 22. He also met with athletes at Coffman and Jerome high schools.

During his two-day visit sponsored by PERC (Parents Encouraging Responsible Choices), Underwood also met with middle school and high school coaches and advisers, parents, the Athletic Council for Dublin City Schools, city of Dublin leaders and police officials, and Superintendent David Axner.

AAI is the first group to study the physical effects of alcohol on the hearts, lungs, muscles and other organs of athletes.

The conclusion was that alcohol is a "metabolic poison that crosses all barriers and negatively affects all systems of the human physiology simultaneously," according to AAI materials.

"This study was long overdue," Underwood said, as he rattled off the statistics including:

Nearly 60 percent of athletes have regularly used alcohol by 12th grade.

Athletes who drink are twice as likely to suffer injuries as non-drinkers.

Every time an athlete gets drunk, he or she negates 14 days of training benefit.

"We all know how important training is. That really blew people away," said Scioto football player Jason Tiemeier.

What is important to combat underage drinking, Underwood told every group he spoke to, is to send a clear and consistent message and establish strong student codes of conduct.

New York state, where he lives, established a student code of conduct several years ago that has been challenged and upheld in court. Every year, 585,000 high school student athletes and 370,000 middle school student athletes sign the code, he said, that carries serious consequences for drinking alcohol or using drugs.

"We're not talking about being punitive here but how we can help kids. How we can identify kids who are doing this and how we can help them," Underwood said.

One of the ways to stop the cycle of underage drinking is to get to kids early on, before they begin, he said.

That is what Axner took away from his meeting with Underwood and from listening to several of his presentations.

"Our next step is to look at the middle school program, get to them early in the learning curve," Axner said. "So many students are involved in athletics and co-curriculars that we really need to make this a priority."

Underwood targets athletes because they make up the largest population in a high school, anywhere from 40 to 90 percent.

Axner also said Underwood had some suggestions to make the district's code of conduct tighter to thwart underage consumption of alcohol.

As in New York state, Axner wants to see the issue taken to the state level, to the Ohio High School Athletic Association "so we don't have to fight this issue one district at a time."

Underwood said he was impressed with Dublin's efforts so far, but sees where more work can make it even better.

"Dublin is a progressive community, one that really cares about their youth. ... I think everyone has a genuine interest in making the community as good as you can make it," he said. While there are multiple opportunities for students to get involved, policies and procedures need to be put in place to make sure students "are living a good life and look at all the risks that can ruin things."

Changes can't begin in the high schools, he said. Those students who are using need intervention.

The process of educating youths on the dangers of drinking alcohol needs to start in the elementary schools, before students get to middle school where 14 percent of students surveyed around the country said they first drank, he said.

"If you're not ahead of the curve, it's pretty hard to stop," Underwood said.

Axner said the district will work with PERC to bring Underwood back to talk to middle school students. Underwood also left materials for coaches and advisors and an outline of a five-year plan that involves the entire community in the fight against underage drinking.