It is every coach’s worst nightmare.
Earlier this week, it became reality for Westfield-Brocton (N.Y.) coach Robert North.
After a head-to-head collision during the Wolverines’ game Friday left running back Damon Janes unconscious, the 16-year-old died Monday inside a Buffalo hospital, sending shockwaves through his small community and bringing further attention to lingering concerns regarding player safety.
While the incident occurred almost 1,500 miles away, first-year Lampasas coach Brian Emerson sympathizes with North.
“You love the game, you enjoy being with the kids and you enjoy the completion,” Emerson said, “and if anything like that happens, it makes you sick to your stomach. … Heaven forbid any of us ever have to go through a situation where a kid is seriously hurt. It’s horrible.”
Hard to prevent contact
Although all agree the safety of players, regardless of sport, is of upmost importance, based on the current diagnosis, few area football coaches believe anything could be done to prevent
situations similar to Janes’. Although his cause of death has yet to be determined, a statement released by his parents and family attributes his passing to an “injury resulting from helmet-to-helmet collision.”
Despite added attention at all levels regarding defensive players targeting — initiating contact against an opponent with the crown of the helmet or to the head and neck area of a defenseless opponent — sometimes accidents, including tragic ones, simply occur within normal play.
“Abide by the rules, play by the rules, and if you do that, you’re going to basically be pretty safe,” longtime Copperas Cove coach Jack Welch said. “We all know the game of football is a hard-hitting game, and there’s some inherent risks that go with that as well as with any sport.”
When it comes to fatal injuries, statistics support Welch’s opinion.
Approximately 1.1 million high school students play football in the United States each year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Between 2003 and 2013, there were 25 fatalities among high school football players, based on the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research prepared by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
Janes death marks the second within a one-month span after 16-year-old DeAntre Turman, of College Park, Ga., died due to a fractured vertebrae in his upper spinal column suffered during a scrimmage.
“We’re talking about young kids, young adults, and we always want to take every precaution necessary to ensure their safety, so they have a productive life once they leave,” Harker Heights coach Jerry Edwards said. “Football’s football, but it’s not everything.”
Strict laws for safety
Treatment of concussions emerged as the most significant change in recent years regarding player safety. In June 2011, the Texas Legislature implemented strict laws regarding the prevention, treatment and oversight of concussions affecting student athletes.
Every school district and each charter school must establish a Concussion Oversight Team, including at least one Texas licensed physician serving as a member. By law, any player believed to have sustained a concussion will be removed from practice or competition immediately and cannot participate in any athletic activity until cleared in writing by a physician.
“The more eyes you have on kids, the better,” Ellison coach Trent Gregory said. “We’ve got a ton of eyes on these kids, and we watch them constantly. If we notice something’s not right, we get with the child and with the training staff and make sure they get proper attention.”
All parents and student athletes in seventh through 12th grade must sign a concussion acknowledgement form outlining the symptoms, prevention, treatment of concussions and the return-to-play protocol. Additionally, coaches and trainers are required to complete two hours of concussion education every two years.
“Obviously, the players are our primary concern,” Ellison head athletic trainer Nikki Briseno said. “Anytime someone gets hit, the coaches know to send them our way, and we know how to handle it.
“We do monitor the players a little bit more closely now,” she added. “If there is a big hit, you are a little more alert.”
As tragic as Janes’ death was, outside of educating players on proper, safe tackling and ball-carrying techniques, little can be done to prevent in-game injuries, including inadvertent helmet-to-helmet collisions.
“(When there are) bodies flying around, it just happens,” Emerson said. “I think by and large that coaches do a good job. I know the National High School Coaches Association and American Football Coaches Association all do a great jobs of making coaches aware of the importance of teaching kids to keep their heads out of football, tackling correctly and blocking correctly, but just during the course of a game, it is going to happen.”