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Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - Page updated at 08:03 P.M.
High School Sports
In the early morning quiet of Sept. 4, a worker at the University of Washington put the finishing touches on a tribute to Curtis Williams on the sideline at Husky Stadium: a purple number 25 that will forever memorialize one of the most tragic stories in the school's 115-year football history.
That Saturday night, during a typically raucous season-opening football game at Foster High School, DeShawn Smith, a sophomore running back at Tyee High, gathered a pass, turned upfield, and was hit helmet-to-helmet by an opposing player. He staggered to his feet, walked to the sideline, sat down and collapsed. He died three days later of acute subdural hematoma, or blood that accumulated between the brain and its outer lining, caused by a ruptured blood vessel.
They were twin reminders, in the span of one football day, of the terrible cost that the game can bear.
Of the 22 known deaths in the United States to have occurred as a direct result of a football injury since 2000, two have taken players from our state Williams, who died in 2002 after suffering a spinal injury in a 2000 game at Stanford, and Smith.
And inevitably, such tragedies raise questions. Are the risks inherent in playing football worth it? Is there anything that can be done to make the sport safer? Just how dangerous is football, anyway?
"It's probably safer than kids getting in a car and driving on the highway," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, who heads the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
Statistically, anyway, there's no comparison.
The death rate for male drivers between the ages of 15 and 24 years old, meanwhile, is 48.2 per 100,000, according to numbers published in 2001 by the University of Maryland Medical Center.
"What I don't want people to do is all of a sudden stop playing football," said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the chief of neurosurgery at Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington. "It's dangerous, but so is riding a bike, driving a car and simply living."
In Washington, since 1936, there have been 20 deaths directly related to football injuries, 11 of those in high school.
Ellenbogen's 11-year-old son plays football and the doctor says he "worries much more about kids riding bikes without helmets" than his son's safety during a football game.
Mueller's numbers indicate, in fact, that per 100,000 participants, football has a lower death rate than hockey, gymnastics, lacrosse and baseball, and much lower than competitive skiing.
"In every sport that's out there, they (deaths) happen," Mueller said. "I don't think you can make the sport totally safe. It would be nice if we could eradicate them all, but I don't know if we will ever do that."
There have been continued efforts through the years to make football safer, efforts that Mueller, Ellenbogen and others say have saved many lives.
Those changes began in the early 1900s, when the deaths of 18 players in 1905 led President Theodore Roosevelt to bring together leaders of some of the top football-playing schools in the country and revamp the rules to make the sport safer. Some have written that football might not exist today if not for Roosevelt's involvement.
Another watershed moment came in the mid-1970s. From 1966 to 1972, there was an average of 25 deaths directly related to football at the junior-high, high-school and college levels each year, with a high of 36 in 1968.
Concern over those numbers led to rules in 1976 outlawing leading with the helmet while blocking or tackling. Most deaths were the result of either brain or spinal-cord injuries suffered during helmet-to-helmet contact. Throughout the country, coaches began teaching tackling with the shoulder and keeping the head up.
The decline in football deaths was almost immediate from 18 in 1976 to four in 1979. Since the introduction of that rule, there have never been more than 12 deaths directly related to playing football at all levels nationwide since 1986. Since 1986, the high has been eight, including zero in 1990 and one in 1994.
There were three deaths at all levels of football last year, two among the more than 1.5 million who play high-school and junior-high football. (It's estimated that 1.8 million play football at some level each year, including pros and college.)
"When you look at the old days, the numbers (of deaths) are really down low now," Mueller said. "You have to remember it's a full-contact sport and even though you are not trying to hit head-to-head, sometimes that just happens. You can be trying to use the shoulder and someone cuts into you and moves and it turns into head-to-head contact."
Other penalties have also been enacted through the years with safety in mind, such as eliminating blocking below the waist in 1981 and more strictly enforcing penalties for roughing the passer and spearing in recent years.
"Officials have been pretty proactive (calling penalties) about leading with the head," said Terry Ennis, a longtime high-school coach in the state who is now at Archbishop Murphy of Mill Creek. "That's pretty ingrained in our kids, that it's not good football and not what's practiced."
Equipment has also undergone a evolution that most observers say has also led to a safer game.
Helmets, for instance, have been constantly updated and there has been little evidence that headgear problems have been a factor in recent deaths.
(The Highline School District, of which Tyee is a member, continues to investigate Smith's death and has not released information on his helmet.)
Most schools in this state have their helmets certified at least once every other year meaning they are inspected by the manufacturer for wear and tear. Helmets that don't pass the test are thrown out. Most schools also inspect helmets at least once a week to make sure they are still fitting properly. (A representative for Riddell, a leading maker of helmets used in this state, declined to comment).
As equipment and rules have changed to improve safety, however, players have continued to get bigger and stronger thanks to similar improvements in weight training and nutrition and year-round workouts throwing another complicating factor into the equation.
"Really, the question you should be asking is why there aren't more deaths because of how big and strong these kids are," Ellenbogen said. "It shows that the coaches are doing things right in teaching tackling correctly and that the helmets work."
Ellenbogen said he doesn't think there is any way to create a helmet that would eliminate every risk.
"Unless you completely encircle the head with Kevlar (a fiber used in a variety of sports equipment), there's no way to fully protect anybody, really," he said.
But technology continues to improve.
Josh Richard, a junior at Ferndale High School who fell unconscious during a game last season and had life-saving surgery to repair a blood clot in his brain, has returned to the field this season thanks in part to a new helmet designed by Schutt. The helmet, which according to the company's Web site is being tried by colleges such as UCLA and Colorado, has air bladders on the sides and the top of the helmet rather than just the top to get what the company says is a truer fit. It also uses a new material called Skydex instead of the traditional foam. Richard played in his team's opening game last week without incident.
Still, injuries happen. And they often occur after what seem like the most innocuous of plays.
The cause of Richard's injury, for instance, is still unclear.
Justin Goe, a sophomore at Rex Putnam High School outside Portland, suffered a similar injury during a junior-varsity game in 2000.
He came off the field after making a seemingly routine tackle on the opening kickoff complaining that his head hurt. After taking himself out of the game, he collapsed on the sideline and was rushed to the hospital, where he was in a coma for two weeks, having suffered a torn blood vessel in the brain. Goe endured months of rehabilitation, but eventually recovered well enough to make his high-school baseball team and now attends a local community college.
His father, Ken, is a sportswriter, making much of his living covering football. His wife, Goe said, doesn't look at football the same as she did before the injury.
But Goe and his son love the game as much as they did before. "The hardest thing for him was not being able to play again," said Goe of his son, who returned to work as an assistant for the football team as a junior and senior.
"There's an element of danger to football, but there's a lot more dangerous things that teenagers do all the time," said Ken Goe. "Giving them the keys to your car, to me, that's a lot scarier. There were some really tangible things he got out of football that enriched him as a person. He could have gotten that same head injury in a car accident, or skateboarding or falling down a mountain."
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