In a game late last October, the Byram Hills defense chased Tommy Avery all night, pursuing him like children chasing a piñata. After each hit, Avery managed to pull himself up until, finally, on his team’s final offensive series, a hard shot to the midsection left the White Plains quarterback breathless.
As Avery gasped to recover, athletic trainer Mike Mirabella was concerned. At his suggestion, Avery soon went straight to the emergency room, Mirabella in tow.
“It was nothing serious, but he’s very, very cautious about that stuff,” said Avery, who is now a senior. “Mike takes that stuff very seriously.”
Players, parents, coaches and administrators faced a sobering reminder as they head into weekend games why doctors and athletic trainers treat football injuries with such extreme care. Evan Murray, a 17-year-old quarterback from Warren Hills Regional High School in New Jersey, suffered a lacerated spleen from a hit he took Sept. 25 on the field. Murray, who was conscious on the sideline before leaving in an ambulance, later died because of internal bleeding.
“It’s gut-wrenching to see something like that happen,” said Dan Schultz, whose sons, Andrew and Liam, play for the Eastchester varsity and JV, respectively. “You can’t not think about what a tragedy it is, but of course you circle back to a sport that your sons are playing. You can’t not think about them.”
Reports after the autopsy indicated that Murray had an abnormally enlarged spleen, leaving him more susceptible to injury. His death was ruled an accident, but is another vicious message about the dangers inherent in football. Consider that it was the third death of a high school football player in the country in September alone.
“I was discussing the situation with our team physician,” said Mirabella, who is White Plains High School’s full-time athletic trainer. “We’ve had kids with abdominal injuries and sent them right to the hospital, but, even if you do everything right, things can go wrong.”
Many local schools prepare for the worst, going above and beyond the state’s rather modest requirements. In fact, according to the state handbook, it is only “recommended” that a school staffs all football games with either a physician or other emergency care personnel.
At White Plains, for example, varsity games are staffed with an athletic trainer (Mirabella), the school’s medical director (a pediatrician) and the team physician (an orthopedist), with an ambulance either on site or on standby.
Schools typically have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place for serious injuries. Mirabella said he holds an EAP drill every August with all game personnel, which assigns responsibilities to coaches, administrators and others in case of emergency.
“They are specific yet general,” said Dave Byrnes, the full-time athletic trainer at Yorktown High School. “We highlight certain conditions like heat illness, lightning strikes, head injuries, spinal injuries, asthma, but there’s also a general protocol. We try to put everybody in the best position to respond and react to the emergency.”
Not every football program has that extensive level of coverage, even at just games and practices. According to the Section One Athletic Trainers’ Society (SOATS), 65-70 percent of Section 1 high schools have access to an athletic trainer full-time, which is nearly twice the rate nationally (37 percent) and statewide (27 percent). But the remaining schools either have part-time care or, in the case of approximately 20 local schools – like Tuckahoe, North Salem, and the high schools in Yonkers – none at all.
In addition to working with football teams, athletic trainers often spend their afternoons bouncing between several events at their school, which might host a soccer game, volleyball match and field hockey game at the same time.
Bill Pilla, the athletic director for the cash-strapped East Ramapo Central School District, has fought to keep an athletic trainer on staff at both Spring Valley and Ramapo High Schools.
“I’ve been clear with our administration here that if they ever try to take away my athletic trainers, I’d resign,” Pilla said. “We’ve made a lot of cuts, but those are medical professionals. When we have a situation and something happens, I feel like our kids are much safer with them.”
Peekskill High School had long been one of the schools without an athletic trainer. After athletic director Lou Panzanaro pestered his district for years to find room in its budget, Peekskill contracted a part-time athletic trainer in August.
All coaches, including assistants and volunteers, are required to have CPR, first-aid, AED and concussion protocol certification, but in an extreme situation like Murray’s that can fall well short.
“I know the coaches have said to me that it puts their mind more at ease knowing that they have a professional trainer there,” Panzanaro said. “If someone is injured, now the trainers can take that piece over and the coach can focus on the game.”
Byrnes, who is the president of SOATS and serves on the executive board of the New York State Athletic Trainers’ Association, said years of media coverage of concussions in the NFL has led schools, coaches, players and parents to exercise more caution with injuries.
That has not only resulted in an uptick of people like him on school payrolls, it’s also led to better communication, which can be the first step in avoiding a tragedy.
“To some extent, there’s been a scare factor in most regards, but it’s also gotten the conversation going,” Byrnes said. “It’s a conversation the parent is having with the athlete and the coach is having with the athlete. I’ve definitely seen more kids over the years self-reporting and that’s huge. We can’t be everywhere all the time, so we rely on that. I think the kids are heeding those warnings.”
Although players are cognizant of the risks, they also believe they are safe. Murray’s death was an eye-opener, but won’t deter them from continuing to play.
Despite injury risks, high school football still attracted more participants nationwide than any other sport.According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,085,182 students played football last school year. A 2013 study found that an average of 12.2 participants per year died playing high school and college football.
“It gets everyone to realize this is a dangerous sport, but I believe this was a freak accident,” Clarkstown North quarterback Jack Abrams said. “Tons of people die everyday in freak accidents. It makes you realize that something can happen, but it doesn’t change my perspective. You can play the game hard, just trust your training and you’ll be fine.”