Disabling injuries are football's unspoken fear
By Susan Christensen
When someone is seriously hurt on a football field, the first clue is a consuming silence. The bands stop playing, cheerleaders quit chanting and a strange stillness spreads through the stands like a reverse version of “the wave.”
On the field, a solemn circle forms around the motionless body of a fallen player. And as the minutes tick by, it seems everyone is thinking the unspeakable: Is he paralyzed?
Most times, the injured player returns to the line of the scrimmage, and the awful hush is broken by a round of atta-boy applause. But some kids can’t “walk it off” no matter how hard they try. And the fall air fills with the wail of an ambulance siren.
On Sept. 9, Marche’ Maye of Hattiesburg was the desperate mom straining to hear the whoop-whoop of an approaching ambulance as she crouched beside her 15-year-old son Justin McCray.
The North Forrest High School sophomore hadn’t gotten up after a three-way collision in a junior varsity game against Purvis High School. And he now lay with his head immobilized between the knees of the team’s trainer.
“He was holding Justin’s head still for a reason – I saw it in his face,” said Marche’, a certified nursing assistant. “I credit him with saving my son’s life.”
Soon, Justin was being whisked away on a stretcher. And though it was only the first quarter, the referees whistled the game to an end.
“The kids didn’t want to play anymore; they wanted to be with Justin,” said his mom. “The whole team – and even some of the Purvis players – came to the hospital. They were all standing in the rain watching the helicopter when it took him to Jackson.”
Tackling takes a toll
Considering some 1.8 million people play football each year, accidents like Justin’s are relatively rare. In 2007, the sport’s catastrophic injury rate was .44 per 100,000 participants – less than both gymnastics and hockey.
Yet when Justin arrived at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, he found he wasn’t the only Mississippi football player facing a debilitating spinal cord injury. He soon met Murrah High School senior Lawerance Williams of Jackson, who had suffered a paralyzing injury during an Aug. 23 practice.
Already an old hand at hospital routines, Lawerance took Justin under his wing. And when Justin moved to Methodist Rehabilitation Center on Sept. 18, Lawerance soon followed.
“After several days of research, I knew Methodist Rehab was the wisest choice for my son,” Marche’ said. “And I’m very happy that Justin was able to persuade Lawerance to switch to the center, too. The guys have created a strong bond that I’m sure will last a lifetime.”
Much of their togetherness involved games of one-upmanship, and the competition pushed both to excel in therapy.
“They had frequent battles over who could stay on the treadmill the longest,” said Dr. Alyson Jones, the physical medicine and rehabilitation physician who supervised their care. “Lawerance couldn’t let someone younger outdo him. But Justin did master the Wii video game system better, despite less hand control.”
A former college basketball player, Dr. Jones added her own motivational smack-talking to the mix. And the players got a kick out of rising to her challenges. “It was easy to work with both of them because they are athletes,” she said.
But it was sobering, too. The experience put her face to face with the inherent dangers of America’s favorite sport. “I don’t want my children to live in fear,” she said. “But if I have a son, it’s going to be scary if football is what he wants to do. I wouldn’t be too upset if he didn’t want to play.”
Selena Williams felt the same way, which is why her oldest son didn’t pick up the sport until the 10th grade. “I thought Lawerance was way too little,” said his mom. “But after he got a black belt in karate, I said if he could survive that, he could play football.”
Lawerance started out as a receiver, but switched to defense – a position his mom figured would be safer. Little did she know that defensive backs have the highest rate of severe injury in football.
Justin and Lawerance were the third and fourth defensive backs to wind up on Methodist Rehab’s spinal cord injury floor in the past three years. Two other paralyzed players – Fred Perryman of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and Robert Cassidy of Ruleville High School – also played the position.
Defensive backs are typically slender, and at 132 and 155 pounds, Justin and Lawerance were among the smallest guys on the field. But it was probably more speed than size that put them at risk, said Frederick O. Mueller, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. Mueller said defensive backs build up speed in the open field and are often flying when they tackle opposing players. “A lot of times there is helmet to helmet contact,” he said. The result is a bone-rattling impact that can snap vertebrae and send paralyzing shock waves down the spinal cord. Justin’s collision left him a quadriplegic. And when Lawerance’s shoulder hit the thigh of a teammate, he lost feeling in his lower body.
After both boys experienced some return of sensation, Dr. Jones prescribed sessions on Methodist Rehab’s weight-supported treadmill system – a therapy that helps retrain the body in the reciprocal motion of walking. Only time will determine if the two can regain enough functional movement to walk again. Meanwhile, both are thankful for their progress so far.
“This has made me grateful for what I do have,” Lawerance said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
Just 40 years ago, serious football injuries were frequent and deadly. The game claimed the lives of 36 players in 1968 and 26 were high school age. “That really woke people up,” Mueller said.
A series of reforms followed – including a ban on head-first blocking and tackling in 1976 and improved standards for protective gear. Nevertheless, football still racks up the highest total of severe injuries of any sport. Three high school players and one professional player died of injuries directly related to football last year and eight players were left with permanent cervical cord injuries.
Tackling accounts for some 69 percent of catastrophic injuries, which is why it’s critical for coaches to hammer home the risks of headfirst contact, Mueller said. “These kids are watching the pros on Sunday and they are hitting with their heads all the time and kids think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Justin and Lawerance say they were taught how to tackle correctly, so neither faults anyone for his injuries. “I think all the coaches blamed themselves at first,” Lawerance said. “But I think they realized it was just something that happens.”
As they work hard to make as many gains as possible, the teens have become a testament to both the invincibility of youth and the unyielding allure of football. Despite their injuries, both still long for another night under the stadium lights.
“If I could, I would play football again,” Justin said. And it’s Lawerance’s wish, as well. “I like the intensity of it,” he said.
But if fate doesn’t land them back on the football field, chances are they’ll find another arena in which to achieve. Neither has a lick of quit in him.
“Justin said: ‘I don’t care what the doctors say – I’m going to prove them wrong,’ ” said his dad Rico Maye.
Lawerance is also determined to beat expectations, said his mom. “I told him that I just want you to have as normal a life as possible and he said: Mama, I will be walking by Christmas.”
Injury Prevention Tips
- Shoulder block and tackle with the head up.
- Do conditioning exercises to strengthen neck muscles.
- Never use the head or helmet as a battering ram when blocking, tackling and ball carrying. Ball carriers should not lower their heads when making contact with tacklers.
- Make sure all equipment—especially the helmet—is properly fitted.
Football officials and coaches should:
- Concentrate on helmet-face mask contact and call penalties on players who use improper blocking and tackling techniques.
- Ensure that a physician or someone who is qualified in emergency care is on the field during games or practice.
- Have a written emergency plan that addresses what will happen if a possible catastrophic head or neck injury occurs. Permanent disabilities can be caused if victims are improperly moved or transported after such injuries.
- When a player experiences signs of head trauma – loss of consciousness, visual disturbance, headache, inability to walk correctly, obvious disorientation or memory loss – he should receive immediate medical attention and not be allowed to return to the game or practice.
*Source: National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research
One upmanship was the order of the day whenever Justin McCray, left, and Lawerance Williams met for Wii-hab workouts with therapeutic recreation specialist Courtney Jones.