Football is an emotional game.
From the thrill of victory to the sorrow of defeat, players, coaches, parents, and fans, for three hours on Friday night experience a range of these emotions all resulting from one game. For a select few, this game can provide means to a life, but for almost all it remains entrenched in their life.
So when this game, beloved by so many for so long, begins taking lives away, the emotions begin to run a lot deeper than wins and losses.
That’s what happened Sept. 13 in western New York, when 16-year-old Damon Janes lost consciousness after a helmet-to-helmet hit. The junior at Brocton High School was playing running back when he was involved in the collision during Westfield/Brocton’s game against Portville. He was able to make it to the sideline under his own power, before collapsing and losing consciousness.
Janes was rushed to a hospital in nearby Buffalo, but never regained consciousness and died on Sept. 16.
The game was cancelled after the incident and Westfield/Brocton has postponed all sporting events and homecoming activities for the following week. Unfortunately, for a grieving small town of around 1,500 people, not much can be done or said to help ease the pain.
Tragedies similar to this are beginning to happen far too often. In fact, less than a month ago De’Antre Turman, also 16-years-old, died from a fractured vertebra in his upper spinal cord that he suffered during a scrimmage at Creekside (Ga.) High School.
Then there’s Tyler Lewellen, 16, who was on life support for nearly a week in August after falling into a coma from a head injury he sustained in a scrimmage for his Arlington (Calif.) High School football team.
The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina reported in its annual Survey of Football Injury Research that 25 high school players suffered fatal injuries from 2003-2012.
It also noted that 78 high school players suffered irreversible brain damage and 71 received “catastrophic” cervical injuries during that same 10-year span.
No matter the level of football, dangerous collisions are inevitable. The National Football League is constantly handing out fines and suspensions that get harsher by the day to try and discourage any contact above the shoulders.
At the collegiate level, the NCAA instituted a new rule this year that allows officials to eject players immediately from the game if they feel a player’s head was targeted in any way.
But in high school football, the level with the most on-field fatalities because of the largest number of participants, what can be done?
Kids’ maturity levels are different, whether it’s pertaining to their size and strength, or their knowledge of the game and how to protect themselves from such injuries occurring.
It’s a difficult topic to convince people to address because nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen to them or someone they know. But in reality, the more research that’s being done the more alarming the results. The American public is just starting to learn about — and see — the effects football-related head injuries can have long-term on the brain.
So what do we do about a game that we all know and love, that brings communities together like few things do and that teaches kids life lessons they may not have the opportunity to get anywhere else?
When does it stop being just a game and become so much more?
Sometimes a little perspective is needed for important changes to be made.
Write Vindicator sportswriter Kevin Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @Connelly_Vindy.