The 2015 high school football season can’t end fast enough. When it comes roaring back next season, and it will, with approximately a million high school kids signing on every year here in Football America, I am sure it will be the same game, played the same way, with the same inherent risks, despite the alarming number of lives it has claimed again this season.
None of that seems right to me. But it’s Football America, and I’ve grown accustomed to its violence being high, its risk of injury downright frightening, and its common sense scarcer than Roger Goodell at a Patriots kegger in the Gillette Stadium parking lot.
Keep in mind, this is a sport that has its pinnacle property, the NFL, with roughly a billion dollars designated to care for its current and future brain-addled alums. Truth is, that might not be nearly enough to cover all the broken minds. It’s just the figure the league and the court system worked out after a protracted taffy-pull, one the NFL cared never to engage in, loath to acknowledge that incessant use (and abuse) of the head, all in the line of duty, could lead to cognitive impairment.
Imagine. Who knew banging one’s head over and over, often with brute force into another player’s head, could lead to, you know, issues?
Back to the kids. There were two deaths last week, only one a high school player. The other victim was a 9-year-old in Ohio, who collapsed during a break in a running drill. The preliminary report from the coroner’s office noted that Wyatt Barber, a third-grader in Reedsville, Ohio, likely died because of an “abnormal left main coronary artery.’’
It could very well be that the boy’s death had nothing to do with football. Not all these deaths we hear about are directly related to playing the game, a key point made by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR), whose statistics on injuries and fatalities have been quoted in a steady stream of late, because high school football players have died at approximately the rate of one a week this season.
Last week’s high school victim, 17-year-old Luke Schemm, played on Tuesday, collapsed during the game, was declared dead the following day. The cause of death, according to his father’s post on Facebook, was a traumatic head injury “that shut off blood flow to the brain.’’ I cannot fathom a father’s crushing, unremitting grief, typing out those words.
Schemm, a senior at Wallace County High School (Sharon Springs, Kan.) made his way to the sideline only moments after his 2-point conversion. Hit as he crossed the goal line midway through the third quarter, he gathered himself, headed off the field, dropped to the ground, and on Wednesday was declared brain dead.
“We have come to terms that Luke, our beautiful gift from God,’’ said his father, David Schemm, following the decision to remove Luke from life support, “is no longer with us.’’
Only the day before his final game, Luke Schemm, football player, basketball player, track star, and active church member, decided he would play football next season at Kansas State.
Late last month, Andre Smith, a 17-year-old senior at Bogan High School in Chicago, died in eerily similar circumstances. He hit his head during the last play of a game on Oct. 22, walked off the field, collapsed, and died the next day.
According to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, the cause of Smith’s death was “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident.’’
In 2014, according to stats issued by the NCCSIR, there were five high school football deaths because of head and spine injuries. Another six players died because of indirect causes, such as heatstroke, an issue that received national attention in August 2011 when three high school players died in one week during a gruesome heat wave.
The heat-related football fatalities of 2011 in large part led to the American Academy for Pediatrics that same month issuing new heat guidelines, which included a 14-day phase-in period for athletes to acclimate to summer’s heat upon returning to football activity.
If only it were possible for the AAP to construct a similar solution, or prescribe a prophylactic, for fractured skulls, shattered spines or, say, football’s concussive and subconcussive hits that researchers at Boston University were the first to trace as the root cause of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the dementia-like degenerative brain disease often detected in autopsies of football players and other athletes.
Thus far in the 2015 high school football season, eight players have died, and it would be premature to say all were directly related to the game — the case with at least Schemm and Smith. At least three others died prior to the season beginning, but all were reported to relate to heatstroke or heart issues. Total: 11 deaths, perhaps a half-dozen or more directly related to playing the game.
Per the NCCSIR, in the years 2005-14, an average of three high school football players died for reasons directly related to the game, while a total of 92 died for indirect reasons, again for such things as heatstroke or sudden cardiac arrest.
David Schemm, in the hours immediately after losing his son, insisted that Luke’s teammates keep playing this year. They were set to be in uniform on Saturday. He talked eloquently about his son’s gifts, how he “lived life with a passion.’’
“Life without risk,’’ said Luke Schemm’s dad, “is no life at all.’’
OK, understood. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden woods, he said, to take life straight on, not wanting upon his death to “discover that I had not lived.’’ We see our children take life straight on in sports, learn to work in partnerships as teammates, flirt with danger, test and find their limits. Football provides a platform for all of that.
But we must ask ourselves, and ask our children to ask of themselves, at what degree of risk, what chance death? We would all say one dead child is too many. What of nearly two dozen just these last two years?