Laurie and Read Brown watched their son Nicholas wobble off the field in the final minutes of his junior varsity football game last year for Union Mine High School and they knew right away something was wrong.
“It doesn’t look like he has his legs,” the wife told the husband.
The freshman running back and safety took a seat on the bench, and when the Aug. 28, 2015, game against Foothill High ended a couple plays later, he stood up to shake the other guys’ hands. Almost immediately, he collapsed. Within the hour, he would be on a helicopter life flight to Sutter Roseville Medical Center where he underwent an emergency craniotomy to save his life.
Over the next few days, the story broke big. Along with Nick Brown, another boy from Union Mine suffered a head injury in the same game, and rumors swirled among other kids and their parents that the two had ingested Adderall, a drug used both recreationally and to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Three days later, sheriff’s and school officials conducted a joint news conference to address the drug rumors, at which they announced that a Union Mine student had been arrested on suspicion of distributing Adderall to his fellow students.
From the foothills around Placerville to the flatlands of Sacramento, and from Phoenix to Fleet Street, it was all that news agencies needed to take off on a broken field run of their own with a sensational story linking supposed drug abuse and football-related injuries.
“Adderall found in ongoing Union Mine High School investigation,” the Arizona Republic’s website read.
“Adderall discussion grows after Union Mine HS players collapse,” reported KCRA 3 News.
“California High School Football Teammates Suffer Mysterious Brain Injuries,” was the headline on an ABC News account.
“Mystery as TWO high school football players suffer brain injuries during SAME game,” said the Daily Mail of London.
Even if the drug angle made for a convenient media hook, it turned out there was little mystery at all to the injuries, at least the one sustained by Nick Brown.
A toxicology scan did find the presence of Adderall in Nick Brown’s system, but a doctor who treated him the night of his injury said the drug had nothing to do with the injury that put him in a coma for more than a month.
The real culprit, it turned out, was football. And, as charged in a lawsuit the Brown family filed Wednesday in El Dorado Superior Court, school authorities also failed to get out in front of the head injury risk the sport poses to every player stepping onto the field.
More to the point in the Nick Brown case, the lawsuit against the El Dorado Union High School District charges that the freshman played 97 consecutive snaps in that one game – on offense, defense and special teams – and that nearly 30 of them resulted in high-impact collisions.
“Of those contacts, a significant percentage involved direct, violent contact to his head,” the lawsuit said.
Football itself has been on trial in America the past few years, with medical investigations conclusively establishing a relationship between the constant headbanging that is central to the sport and the long-term damage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Books have been written about it, and movies made. Medical centers have been established with the sole focus of studying the CTE-football nexus, especially as it plays out in the lives of National Football League alumni.
The game itself, however, has not been targeted in the Brown family’s lawsuit, even though 13 high school students nationwide died playing the sport last year, including four from traumatic brain injury, according to various media reports. Instead, the suit accuses the district of “gross negligence” for not monitoring the boy during the game and for not having any medical personnel or ambulance on site.
“Our focus is on the conduct of the coaches and the administrators who are charged with the responsibility of running these programs,” said Roger Dreyer, the Sacramento attorney representing the Brown family. “Football can be played safely when people do their job in monitoring these young student athletes. They have the medical research and information available to them to do the job, and parents rely upon them to do the job.”
Football, said Dreyer, “is a violent game, and if schools are going to continue to run the programs and sell the event to spectators and to the public, they need to handle it in a responsible fashion.”
District Superintendent Stephen Wehr said he could not comment on the pending litigation. The suit follows a government tort claim the family filed against the district that was routinely denied, as pretty much all of them are.
Justin Schwartz, the other Union Mine JV player who was treated and released for the head injuries he suffered in the same game last year, is not part of the lawsuit. He recovered well enough to play junior varsity baseball last spring for Union Mine.
Before last year’s injury, Nick Brown was a popular, good-looking, smart, athletic kid, a straight-A student, his parents said, the third of three boys in a Diamond Springs family. The dad was a PG&E lineman, the mom worked in medical billing. One of the older boys went off to Brigham Young University-Idaho while the other joined the Air Force. All three loved to play sports. Both big brothers made Eagle Scout. Nick hoped to, too.
Their idyllic lives, however, were pushed to the edge of despair the night Nick collapsed. Doctors at Sutter Roseville told the parents their son had sustained a subdural hematoma, or a severe bleeding on the brain. While the 15-year-old boy was in surgery, the physicians told the Browns that Nick probably would not make it through the next 72 hours. If he did, they said, the best they could expect was for him to spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state.
“I couldn’t believe we were having that conversation,” Laurie Brown said.
In the days to come, social stigma would pile on top of the Browns’ pain. Text messages buzzed on their phones about the boys having taken Adderall even while Read and Laurie Brown drove to the hospital from the high school campus in El Dorado.
The sensational stories hit the following Monday, fueled by the news conference in which the district superintendent was joined by El Dorado County sheriff’s Lt. Tom Murdoch in announcing the drug arrest. Charges against the 17-year-old boy are still pending, according to El Dorado County court officials.
The drug overlay angered the Browns.
“It hurt our family,” Read Brown said in an interview in his lawyer’s office. “Everybody looked at us like Nick is a kid who has taken drugs and we’re irresponsible parents, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re very involved with our kids, and we don’t want to get rid of football.”
Dr. Michael Ridgeway, the trauma surgeon who was on the team that first treated the boy at Sutter Roseville, said in an interview that the injury resulted from “a violent blow” to the head, and while Nick did test positive for Adderall, the drug had nothing to do with it.
“The test does not tell you when he took it, or how much, or what the effect was,” or how it might have affected his behavior, the doctor said. “He certainly wasn’t intoxicated or altered from anything other than the injury.”
Since the day he played the 97 consecutive downs, life has been mostly hellish for Nick and his parents. Four times, neurosurgeons opened up his head and needed 54 staples on each occasion to close it up again. He spent five months in the hospital. His parents said he couldn’t swallow or eat for a time and lived while attached to breathing and feeding tubes. He suffered seizures, infections, temporary paralysis. He has lost 85 percent of the sight in his left eye.
He has regained most of his speech and is back in school, but he struggles with subjects he formerly aced and is enrolled in a special education-style curriculum, his parents said. He’s fallen out with his peer group – the other kids are nice, but they no longer come around to the Brown house, which used to be crowded with pals. He has gone flat emotionally.
Even though it’s miraculous that Nick Brown is alive, let alone up and walking around, he still has a very iffy prognosis. Dr. Ridgeway said the teenager has “severe deficits” and “it’s unclear how many of those things will get better.”
Through the lawsuit, Nick Brown’s parents want to make sure he is taken care of in the event he isn’t able to live independently as an adult. They also want to send a message to the El Dorado district and school officials across the country.
They want coaches and school officials to monitor players for head injuries and to follow concussion protocols. They want licensed medical providers and ambulances on the premises. They want the adults to yank the kids out of games to check on them for head trauma after violent collisions. They want somebody to regulate how many consecutive snaps a kid can play before he comes out for a break. They want school districts to educate parents on the dangers of football.
“This is not a freak injury,” Read Brown said. “Twelve kids died playing high school football last year. You don’t hear about it. If 12 pro football players died, they’d shut football down. These are kids, and we have a responsibility to watch out for them, to prevent injuries. We don’t want people to go through this.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said, “you can never wake up from.”