We all know that football, from the pros on down, has a brain-injury problem. But the number of teenagers who have died playing youth football in 2013 is still shocking.
On Monday afternoon, 17-year-old Charles Youvella of Hopi High School in Arizona died of a traumatic brain injury suffered during his team’s loss two days earlier in the state playoffs. Youvella’s team lost 60-6, and he wound up recording his team’s lone touchdown. Minutes later, Youvella (whose father was his school’s athletic director) was tackled on what was, by all accounts, a “normal”-looking play and suffered a brain injury that ultimately took his life.
Thursday, one day after Charles Youvella’s vigil, ESPN’s Outside the Lines dropped a bombshell report featuring hard data on the decline of participation in Pop Warner youth football. Documents provided to OTL show that the number of kids playing Pop Warner dropped to 225,287 in 2012 — nearly 10% less than the previous two years. One obvious reason for this, as Sports on Earth’s Patrick Hruby highlighted yesterday, is that the rate of concussions in youth football is at least 4% and most likely much higher. For parents, that means that in the best case scenario, letting your child play youth football means a 1-in-25 chance that at some point his brain will smash into the side of his skull and cause some measure of debilitation, be it short- or long-term. (And that’s not considering the more-frequent sub-concussive hits to the head that could be just as dangerous.)
A study published in 2012 at the University of North Carolina found that 25 high school players died between 2003 and 2012 because of injuries sustained directly from football — i.e., excluding issues like heat stroke. That’s an average of 2.5 a year. This year, in addition to Youvella, at least five other players have died from injuries to the brain, neck, or spine:
• 17-year-old Jaleel Gipson of Farmerville, La. died in May from a broken back suffered during what coaches called a “textbook” tackle.
• 16-year-old De’Antre Turman of College Park, Ga. died during a preseason scrimmage in August, breaking his neck during a tackle. His uncle told the local CBS affiliate in Atlanta that it was “a regular hit that he’s made 1,000 times.”
• 16-year-old Damon Janes of Brocton, N.Y. died in September after a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game. He staggered to his feet but collapsed once he reached the sidelines. Three days later, he was dead. His teammates took a vote and agreed to forfeit the rest of the season.
• 17-year-old Dylan Jeffries of Lost Creek, W. Va., died in October from injuries sustained during a game on Sept. 27. He was rushed to the local hospital with a blood clot in his brain and put into a medically induced coma. He died less than two weeks later.
• 17-year-old Chad Stover of Tipton, Mo. died just yesterday after being taken off life support for brain injuries suffered during a game on Oct. 31.
The last year that more than two high school football players died from direct injuries was 2008, when the number was seven. This is already the worst year in the last five, and the second-worst since 2001.
Better safety protocols, more research, better education — these things might help reduce the danger in the game. But the fact that this season has been so deadly — at a time when awareness of football’s risks is at an all-time high — underlines the fact that football has never been and will never be a “safe” sport.