Why Are High School Football Players Dying?
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — Death certificates have empty spaces to be filled — even if death, like life, never fits easily into bureaucratic boxes. The death certificate of Damon Janes sketches a terrible story.
Usual Occupation: Student. Kind of Business or Industry: High School. Immediate Cause of Death: Blunt impact injury of head. Place of Injury: Football Field.
The nexus of high school football and death trespasses too often on the mythic ethos of Friday night lights. Janes was a workhorse junior running back for Westfield/Brocton, a combined team from two small schools in western New York. He died in a Buffalo hospital three days after taking multiple hits to his head in a game Sept. 13, 2013. He was 16.
“No one should die playing the game they love,” his mother told USA TODAY Sports.
Penny Gilbert and Dean Janes want to spare other parents their pain. That’s why they sat at a conference table in their attorneys’ office here recently, telling stories about their strong-willed son and his life and death.
“We don’t want to take away football,” Gilbert said. “We just want to make it safer. We don’t want Damon to be just a statistic.”
The statistics are damning: Janes is one of eight players last year whose deaths were directly related to high school football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. This season, five players have died of causes directly related to football, such as head and spine injuries.
Nine high school football players died last season of indirect causes, such as heatstroke. There have been nine more such deaths this season, seven from high school.
And yet for those same seasons, there have been no fatalities directly related to pro, semipro, college and youth football. Which raises the question: Why are high school football players dying at a time when players from other levels are not?
“We’re trying to wrap our minds around that,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at North Carolina and who also directs the catastrophic injury center’s traumatic injury division.
High school football players suffer three times as many catastrophic injuries as college players — meaning deaths, permanent disability injuries, neck fractures and serious head injuries, among other conditions, according to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Three high school football players died in one week at the end of September and beginning of October, including Tom Cutinella, 16, whose undefeated Shoreham-Wading River High School team from Long Island, N.Y., claimed an emotional victory in the Class IV championship game on Sunday. The Suffolk County Football Coaches Association has created a memorial award in his name.
There are roughly 1.1 million high school football players and just 100,000 combined in the NFL, college, junior college, Arena League and semipro. USA Football estimates 3 million play youth football. The catastrophic injury center calculated a death rate of 0.19 per 100,000 participants in 2013 for the 4.2 million who play football at all levels — and 0.73 per 100,000 in high school.
Guskiewicz suggests three possible reasons high school players are dying when others are not:
Older equipment: “Some of the brain-related deaths are due to helmets that aren’t certified or effective, and that’s much more likely to happen at the high school than college level,” Guskiewicz says.
Teenage brains: High school players are strong enough for high-velocity hits — unlike players in youth football — but their brains are not fully mature and are therefore more susceptible to second-impact syndrome, a potentially fatal circumstance in which a player is concussed once and then a second time before he is fully recovered from the first. “In the world literature, 95% of second-impact syndrome deaths are in athletes under the age of 18,” Guskiewicz says.
Athletic trainers: Just 37% of public high schools nationally have full-time athletic trainers, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association. These health professionals are trained to recognize concussions and keep players from returning to games when they might already be concussed. “Unfortunately, some of these deaths are preventable,” Guskiewicz says, “and when you don’t have appropriate medical care out there, you can have players going back to play when they shouldn’t.”
‘PEOPLE SHOULD UNDERSTAND’
Janes’ mother and father are suing multiple parties over the death of their son, including three school districts. Dale Robbins, the Jamestown attorney who is representing Dean Janes and Penny Gilbert, said the factors cited by Guskiewicz are all at play in the case.
Robbins said Janes wore an older helmet on the fateful night, that there was no athletic trainer on the sidelines and that he will introduce an expert at trial who will say that Janes died of second-impact syndrome.
His clients don’t have much money and aren’t interested in money, Robbins said, adding they are suing for an unspecified amount as a means to promote better safety.
“We want more awareness,” Dean Janes said. “People should understand that what happened to Damon was preventable.”
“I don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to hurt forever.”
The parents, who were never married and are no longer together, had two sons. Gilbert also has another son and a daughter from a later relationship.
“It’s hard to pinpoint how we’ve been doing,” Gilbert said. “We all miss him. It’s like a piece of our lives has been cut out.”
Janes and Gilbert describe their late son as a born jokester who made people laugh. He was known for walking into friends’ homes unannounced and simply joining conversations. And then, his father said, it’d be: “‘Thanks for the ham sandwich, see you later.'”
Damon was born in Westfield and lived in Brocton, small communities in Chautauqua County, best known nationally for Chautauqua Institution, the historic summer resort on Chautauqua Lake. After Damon’s death, Brocton rallied around his family with fundraisers and ribbons tied to trees.
“They got tattered, and it was time to take them down,” Gilbert said. “And every ribbon we’d take down, we’d all tell a story, a Damon story.”
One was about the time he took a zero-turn lawnmower and the bottom of a grocery cart with a car seat bungee-corded on top and tied them together so he and some buddies could spin around, daredevil style.
“They went as fast as they could in a circle, and the outside of that cart was zinging and one boy flew off and knocked a tooth out,” Gilbert said, laughing. “I got a call, ‘Mom, you got to come down,’ and we spent an hour looking for that tooth in the dark.”
That sort of horseplay got Damon in trouble sometimes. But even when he was being chastised, Damon usually found a way to make his father smile. “He was the kind of kid you could never stay mad at,” Janes said.
SAFETY COSTS MONEY
Rules changes in 1976 eliminated the head and face as an initial point of contact on blocking and tackling, and deaths directly related to high school football dropped from double digits in a given year to single digits.
Dawn Comstock, an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s Colorado School of Public Health, tracks injuries for the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study.
“If you really wanted to prevent the vast majority of injuries in football, you could do that if you took away tackling,” she said, “but then it wouldn’t be football anymore.”
Coach Tom Lopez of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass., said he had six players who sat out with concussions this season.
“It’s just part of the game because it is a contact sport,” he said. “It’s impossible to make football completely safe, and I don’t think it’s possible to make lacrosse or volleyball or soccer completely safe.”
Coach David Duffy of Needham, Mass., said his Needham High team does less hitting in practice. “I don’t think we even had one live scrimmage this season,” he said. “I think coaches are playing it smarter than they did in the old days.”
Larry Cooper, chairman of the secondary school committee for the National Athletic Trainers Association, said cost is the reason many schools give for not having athletic trainers. “Unfortunately, it usually takes some major injury, possibly even death, that would cause a school district or a community to see the value of an athletic trainer,” he said.
David Davidson, superintendent of schools for Westfield Academy and Central School District, said the Westfield/Brocton football team had an athletic trainer on the sideline this season for all but one game, thanks to grants from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, named for the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, and the NFL Foundation. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was born in Jamestown, Chautauqua County’s largest city.
DAMON’S LAST GAME
Dean Janes is a logger who played running back for Brocton in his day. His son played the same position for Westfield/Brocton. Damon was on the field a lot, as he also returned kickoffs and played in the defensive backfield some of the time. His parents attended the season opener, where he took several hits to the head on kickoff returns against Randolph. They were there again the next week when their son played his last game at Portville in a neighboring county.
“No one goes to a game believing their son is never going to come home,” Gilbert said.
Janes picked up 5 yards on his first carry. On the next play, two tacklers converged on him and helmets collided. And so it would go. USA TODAY Sports obtained footage from the game and provided a copy to Guskiewicz.
“He took a lot of impacts in that game,” Guskiewicz said. “Clearly, he was their main player. I looked at 10 or 12 plays in which he took an impact of some sort to the head. There were several crown impacts. There was another one where he was taken to the ground and the back of his head hit.
“If it was second-impact syndrome, it’s possible one of those early ones set the thing in motion and then it was a later blow that caused the second impact.”
On his last play, Janes swiveled for a nice gain. His team had been outscored 76-13 through seven quarters — naturally his team’s touchdowns, one in each game, were his — and still he struggled for every yard.
“He played his heart out every play of every game,” Gilbert said.
His father recalled his son’s motto: “Giving Up Is Not an Option.”
Janes was gang-tackled on his last carry. If he took a head impact, it is difficult to see on the game footage, though Gilbert said from her vantage point she could see a blow to his head. Her son went to the bench and slumped over. His mother ran to his side. His father ran across the field to be there, too. Damon never regained consciousness.
The last conversation father had with son came at halftime. “He was upset,” his father said, “because they were losing again.”
Picking a headstone was difficult. Gilbert said they thought about an image etched in stone but couldn’t settle on one. How could they? Damon was so many things — motocross rider, jokester, running back, brother, son — how could one image represent everything?
They decided on a cross, 6 feet high. Damon was 5-11, but he’d grown three shoe sizes in a year. They figured he’d have been 6 feet soon enough.
Jim Halley and Sarah Gearhart, USA Today