Following the Sept. 4 death of a Franklin Parish High School football player from an on-field spinal fracture, authorities have said athletes can be struck down even when players and coaches take all the right precautions.
“It’s tragic. … It’s just one of those things where there’s nothing you can do and it’s just a freak accident,” said Jacob Doyle, spokesman for the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to prevent that from happening, except not play.”
Freshman Tyrell Cameron was on the school’s punt coverage team during a play in the fourth quarter of a game last week when he was injured. He appeared to stumble as he approached the punt returner and collided with an opposing blocker, hitting the crown of his head against the other player’s shoulder, said LHSAA Assistant Executive Director Keith Alexander.
“There was nothing illegal. I’ve looked at the film I don’t know how many times (with coaches, doctors, trainers and referees),” he said. “From all angles, it was just an unfortunate, freakish accident.”
A medical examiner determined Cameron died from a neck fracture and ruled the death an accident, Franklin Parish Sheriff Kevin Cobb said. Investigators found no evidence that Cameron’s equipment was broken or ill-fitting, he said.
The problem lies in the structure of the neck, said Ray Castle, director of the athletic training program at LSU.
Typically, the upper spine follows a natural curve, but when a player lowers his head, the bones align in the straight “neutral position.” When pressure is applied to the top of the head, the neck can’t bend and instead “buckles,” Castle explained.
“This creates a big weak link. … Two rams butting, that’s not what you want to do.”
For this reason, football players at all levels have been encouraged not to lead with their heads, whether they’re linebackers trying to make a tackle or running backs trying to break one. But players can still trip into a vulnerable position anyway, Castle said.
Football players aren’t the only Friday night athletes at risk for head and neck injuries. Cheerleaders also are susceptible, he said. And doctors are seeing an uptick in lacrosse injuries as the sport gains popularity.
Nevertheless, football fatalities caused by head and neck injuries are dropping across the country at all competitive levels, according to a 2015 study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
“The past 10 years (2005-2014) have recorded the lowest number of head and neck fatalities (36) since data collection began in 1931,” the report states.
Before a 1976 rule change that eliminated the head as the initial contact point in blocking and tackling, fatalities in football averaged more than 10 a year, the report states. For the past 25 years, however, there have been fewer than 10 head and neck fatalities per year.
In Louisiana, Castle praised a 2011 legislative act that requires coaches, officials, licensed trainers and medical personnel to remove a player exhibiting symptoms of a serious sports injury. The player may return only after being cleared by a medical professional.
The same year, the Legislature also approved a second act that requires much of the same attention specifically for suspected concussions and defined a medical professional as a physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or psychologist with neuropsychology or concussion training.
Alexander believes the concussion act had little effect on high school football coaches, who generally were already practicing the required precautions by 2011. Though many receive more, all coaches are required to take a 16-hour general first-aid class, he said.
On the topic of head and neck injuries, coaches are instructed to just protect the student, keep him still and wait for a doctor or EMT to arrive, he said.
It is important for qualified medical professionals to perform the evaluation because, while some neurological injuries are obviously dangerous, others can be difficult to assess, Castle said.
For example, athletes who suffer a stretched or pinched nerve, sometimes called a “stinger,” may get over their pain and regain a full range of motion, but they could be at risk for long-term damage.
Even if they feel well enough to get back in the game , they may still be weakened — possessing as little as a quarter of their normal strength — setting them up for another big hit.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.