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Five High School Football Deaths in One Month Highlight Safety Concerns

With five high school football deaths in March 2012, the safety of the sport has been closely examined. Three high school students died from contact injuries, and two died from heart-related issues. An average of 12 high school and college football players die each year.

Damon James lost consciousness after a helmet-to-helmet hit during a Friday night game. The Brocton High School student was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit at Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. He died on Monday afternoon. He was 16 years old.

Georgia teen DeAntre Turman suffered a broken neck and fractured cervical vertebra during a scrimmage. DeAntre, 16, of Creekside High, died about an hour after sustaining the injuries. Witnesses of the scrimmage watched Turman tackle a receiver, then immediately go limp. According to the witnesses, the tackle was a “fundamental tackle…a clean tackle.” Turman, a star athlete, was offered a football scholarship to the University of Kentucky.

A similar incident occurred in California. Tyler Lewellen, 16, from Arlington High School, collapsed on the sidelines after a helmet-to-helmet collision. He was rushed to the hospital and fell into a coma. He was eventually taken off life support.

Additionally, two other high school football players died within days of each other after collapsing during practice. Evan Raines of North Carolina and Mitchell Cook of California both died after collapsing during football practice. Medical tests showed that the deaths were caused by heart issues.

The 2012 Annual Survey of Catastrophic Football Injuries states that the majority of catastrophic injuries for football players occur while playing defense. During the 2012 season, there were five brain injuries which resulted in permanent damage. Four of these injuries were at the high school level and one was at the college level. In 2011, there were sixteen brain injuries which resulted in incomplete neurological recovery. Most high school football deaths result from underlying heart conditions or heat-related causes, but proper education and preparation could possibly prevent these fatalities from occurring.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury recommends several approaches to reducing the risk of catastrophic injury and death to football players. These include:

  1. Coaches drilling the proper execution of the fundamentals of football, particularly blocking and tackling. Shoulder blocks and tackles should occur with the head up.
  2. Preseason physical exams for all participants, with the identification of athletes who have previously suffered brain or spinal injuries, including concussions. If the physician has any doubt about the athlete’s readiness to participate, the athlete should not be allowed to play.
  3. Athletes should be properly conditioned with neck exercises and training so they can hold their heads up during tackles or blocks.
  4. Coaches and other officials should support and enforce rules against spearing at all times, encouraging players to refrain from using their heads as battering rams.
  5. Coaches, physicians, and trainers should take special care to ensure that the players’ equipment is properly fitted.
  6. A physician should be on the field during games and practice, if possible. Each institution should have a team National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) certified athletic trainer who is a regular member of the institution’s staff and who is qualified in the emergency care of both treating and preventing injuries.
  7. Coaches should be prepared for a possible catastrophic injury and have an emergency plan that includes an evacuation plan, first aid, and available transportation.
  8. If an athlete experiences or shows signs of head trauma, they should be pulled out of practice or a game until examined by a qualified health professional, not a coach.
  9. Coaches should educate players on symptoms of traumatic head injury and the importance of playing safely.
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