My school days in Ohio were long ago, but one memory I carry is going to the hospital to visit a classmate paralyzed in a freak football injury.
On a kickoff, he collided helmet-first with an opposing player and broke his neck. I’m a football fan, but even now I get a queasy feeling whenever I see a jarring tackle.
I got that same feeling when I read about a rash of deaths on high school football fields this season – seven through last weekend’s games. The latest was Andre Smith, 17, who died late last week in the Chicago area after getting hurt on the last play of the game.
I was curious, so I went digging a littler deeper through the numbers. According to the best figures available, the seven deaths this season already approach the highest number directly caused by high school football over the last quarter-century. (There were eight in 2001 and in 2013). Deaths this season are double the average of about 3.4 between 1990 and 2014.
California, a high school football hotbed, hasn’t gone unscathed. Riverside Poly senior Josh Nava was in an induced coma Friday after a head injury during a game last Friday night. Joe Davidson, The Sacramento Bee’s great prep sportswriter, told the story this week of a gruesome injury. After Franklin High quarterback Jacob Lopez broke his leg last Saturday against Jesuit, players from both teams knelt at midfield and prayed.
Football can teach many important lessons about teamwork and leadership, but it also accounts for nearly 40 percent of severe sports injuries in high school. High schools account for two-thirds of all football-related deaths, partly because they have the most players. Since 1931, some 700 high school players have died directly due to football (brain injuries and cervical fractures), and another 500 have died due to indirect causes (heart problems, heat stroke, etc.).
The encouraging news is that there’s much more awareness among parents, coaches and players. There’s more attention on proper tackling techniques, on medical exams before allowing players to take the field, and on monitoring them for signs of head injury.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new recommendations. It urged zero tolerance for illegal head-first hits, said athletic trainers should be on the sidelines and said players should weigh the risk of injury.
Partly, the brighter spotlight is due to the highly publicized deaths and suicides of former NFL players who suffered repeated concussions while playing. An NFL-funded study found that the average high school player is nearly twice as likely as a college player to suffer a brain injury.
Under a state law that took effect this year, California’s middle and high school teams can hold only two full-contact practices a week during the season, and they can be no longer than 90 minutes. Contact practices are banned during the off-season. The California Interscholastic Federation supported the bill, and, starting last season, also limited overall practice time to 18 hours a week.
Even with the increasing safeguards, some teens and their parents are apparently deciding the danger isn’t worth it, especially since relatively few high school players get college scholarships, much less NFL riches. The number of high schoolers playing football has dropped in five of the past six years. It’s still the most popular sport by far, however, with nearly 1.1 million playing last season.
Football is a contact sport, but serious injuries don’t have to be such a big part of the game.
By the numbers
The number of football fatalities in high school and total fatalities over the last decade, including direct deaths (brain injury, cervical fractures) and indirect deaths (heart problems, heat stroke):
- 2005 10 high school, 15 total
- 2006 13 of 17
- 2007 9 of 13
- 2008 14 of 20
- 2009 16 of 21
- 2010 11 of 16
- 2011 13 of 16
- 2012 9 of 15
- 2013 18 of 18
- 2014 11 high school, 16 total
Source: National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research