Two years ago, Drew Williams, a football player at Lane Tech High in Chicago, collapsed on the sideline at a game from what his family says was a traumatic brain injury.
He spent six months in a coma before being able to return home and is now between a “minimally responsive and vegetative state,” according to his sister, Andrea. He can’t eat or speak or even move much and requires 24-hour care.
The family knows Drew endured a number of hits in the game and that he collided with another teammate, Andrea says, but they don’t know much more.
“We still don’t know what caused it,” she said. “We never received a definitive answer.”
The why is a question that some families struggle with, often not for their own peace of mind, but because of their desire to make sure other families don’t lose a loved one playing the game he loves. But getting that answer can be a challenge.
That is the reason that Practice Like Pros, a football advocacy group, has proposed a coordinated effort at a national research center to compile data in catastrophic injuries by combining the athlete’s medical information along with his football history and specifics of the circumstances of the injury. With a more comprehensive picture of each case, patterns could be determined with the possibility to effect change.
In the 2013 and ’14 seasons, 13 deaths have been tied to contact in high school football; 13 other deaths were classified as not directly related to football such as heat stress or heart ailments. Six players have died since early September, with four classified as contact related pending autopsy reports on Cam’ron Matthews, from Alto, Texas, who died last weekend.
“It makes your heart sink to see the frequency and we know so little about it,” said Terry O’Neil, the founder of Practice Like Pros and a former executive with the New Orleans Saints. “We’re burying these boys and not learning anything from these deaths.”
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina has been recording and categorizing these injuries and is interested in collaborating with Practice Like Pros on the project. Practice Like Pros is program that brings coaching techniques used in college and the NFL to high schools.
“We can find ways to save lives and save people from incurring catastrophic injury,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, medical director for the center. “It’s only through a case-by-case analysis and identifying the factors that were in play can we get an adequate understanding. Then we figure out what things are correctable, whether it’s equipment, training or rules. If we can identify the most injurious aspects, hopefully we can find ways or reduce or eliminate them and save lives.”
The initial effort on the project began 2 1/2 years ago, but the challenges are many. Among them: restrictions on the release of medical records, pending litigation, various autopsy standards in different states, differing rules and levels of cooperation with individual state scholastic athletic associations, and much like any research effort, funding.
Cantu points to the bounds of HIPAA that prevent doctors from contributing to research projects without release forms that are often hard to get signed on a case-by-case basis. “We are still frustrated by the fact that it is very, very difficult — as much as we want to do it — to get access to the medical records and what actually happened to these young people,” he said.
O’Neil said information such as the type of contact the player took part in, any medical symptoms reported or any conversations with teammates, coaches or parents about injuries could be useful.
“It’s more than a forensic question after the death,” he said. “It’s a football question that has to be combined with the medical piece to give us the information we need. I’m certain we’ll come to some information if we take a rigorous approach to studying these.
O’Neil and Cantu say they see progress in cooperation from the state associations. Each state association has some version of a medical advisory committee, although most states have more than one state association, usually one for public schools and one for private schools.
“The concept is a great one because so many times we don’t know all the answers on how a kid does die,” said Dr. James Robinson, co-chair of the medical advisory committee for the Alabama High School Athletic Association. “The more information we have, the better it is in the long run such as whether you might make recommendation for other screening tools. … Prevention is the key and information of how widely things happen would be important.”
Cantu said he believes a “very sophisticated team could be put together to evaluate every one of these deaths for a reasonable amount of compensation.” The team, which would need to operate independently, would likely need to be involved in the autopsy process in some fashion because he said often a coroner or medical examiner might not have the background of dealing with athletes.
“How much of the information is going to be good or how well trained are the pathologists in knowing some conditions that cause sudden death in athletes?” said Robinson, also the team physician for the University of Alabama. “If there was an independent review panel that looked at all the deaths that happened in the country and came up with some consensus that would be something we could gain information from.”
O’Neil said he believes a philanthropist or foundation will come forward to help provide funding.
“We are in some good conversations about it and there is more of a national consciousness about this than there has been,” he said. “There were 15 deaths just two years ago, but there wasn’t the connection with people in one region to another or one state to another. Those episodes occurred as local isolated tragedies. Two years later, we are finding more awareness.”
Sadly, that’s because of more deaths and more injuries, and more families enduring the aftermath like that of Drew Williams in Chicago.
“I think it would be important to identify the cause and identify the solution,” Andrea Williams said. “How do we prevent this from happening to anyone again?
“I would hate for anyone else to have to go through what my family has gone through and what my brother is currently going through.”