By Colton Cary, Contributing Writer
Andre Jackson: Euclid, Ohio. Chase Lightfoot: Pearland, Texas. Lewis Simpkins: Lexington, South Carolina. These are the names of just three of the five high-school football players that have been killed in football-related incidents since July of this year.
These deaths, while tragic, are not inconsistent with a recent upward trend in fatalities. According to a report from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, seven high-school football players were killed through injuries directly related to the sport in 2015. The study also reports that an average of 12 football-related fatalities have occurred in each of the last several years in high school and college combined.
“It’s just awful,” said Tricia Russell, a self-proclaimed “football mom” from Mercer County, Kentucky, when asked how she felt about watching her son, Blake, play for his team. “I go to every game and watch every play closely to make sure my baby is alright.”
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of these incidents is that the types of injuries sustained by the players differ more widely than one might suspect. Simpkins, 14, had a pre-existing heart condition that was not taken into account by coaches at River Bluff High School as they forced their players through rigorous preseason conditioning drills. All reports listed a “cardiovascular problem” as the cause of death of Lightfoot, 17 – a problem that was also clearly not taken into account by the coaching staff at Shadow Creek High School.
An average of 12 football-related fatalities have occurred in each of the last several years in high school and college combined.
But the death of Jackson, 17, stands as the most shocking of all. He was hurt during a kickoff play on a Friday night game, checked himself into a local hospital on his own power after the game, and was released later that evening. Two days later, Jackson was back at the hospital after continuing to feel pain in his side. He died that same day from an intestinal laceration — an injury that was not diagnosed two days prior, the first time Jackson was at the hospital.
As a result of these deaths, many parents of high school and middle school aged children have made the decision to keep their kids from participating. According to another recent study from Sports Illustrated, participation rates for high school football players in America have declined in six of the last seven years, and are down by 2.5 percent overall since the 2008-09 football season.
But for players, the rewards for participation still easily outweigh the consequences. “I have always loved the sport of football,” said Nate Weiland, former member of the Grove City College football team in Pennsylvania. Weiland, 22, suffered a career-ending knee injury during his freshman year of college and has spent the last 3 years as an assistant coach for the team. “I never played again, but if I had the choice to do anything over differently, I would have done the exact same thing.”
What is it about this sport that keeps young people signing up and parents in the stands? Russell points to a change in her son’s demeanor: “He has matured so much since he started playing… [and] he works so much harder in all aspects of life.”
As long as young people continue to play, a losing battle is fought by those who wish for the sport to be disregarded entirely. But there are still improvements that can be made. The Journal of Athletic Training found last year that only about one-third of high schools provide full-time athletic trainers. “This number simply must increase further,” the group stated. In addition, a proper educational program for parents and players would go a long way in easing the minds of those involved in amateur football. Although the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) requires high school and middle school coaches to receive state-regulated safety certificates in order to be eligible to coach, they do not always pass this information on to their players, a critical factor that could make a difference in the well-being of players who are the most susceptible to injuries.
Even though the nature of football suggests that eliminating injuries from the game entirely is unrealistic, a stronger focus on proper training and safety procedures will only improve playing conditions for future players in generations to come.