One year ago, we debuted the Football Injury Highlight Reel in STAT to bring attention to the enormous amount, and variety, of damage the game of football does to players. It emphasized non-concussion injuries, both because concussion garners so much press on its own and because other injuries, while severe, disabling, and costly, draw relatively little attention in debates about the future of football.
This year’s equally grim edition focuses on non-concussion injuries that football players from youth leagues, high school, and the pros sustained between Nov. 6 and Nov. 12. While serious injuries and deaths are also occurring at the college level, this highlight reel calls attention to the risks to child athletes, with NFL players included as a point of comparison. And, like last year, this is just a snapshot of the slew of major injuries associated with the game.
At the youth level, the week’s most devastating news was the Nov. 9 death of high school junior defensive back Jeremiah Williams. The 16-year-old fractured two vertebrae in his neck in a game on Nov. 2. Williams was given CPR on the field and taken by helicopter to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where he was placed on a ventilator. Tragically, he did not recover. The mayor of Greenville, Miss., declared Nov. 15 to be Jeremiah Williams Day.
(Williams isn’t the only youth football player to have died this season. Others include Pike County (Georgia) High School junior Dylan Thomas, who died in October at age 17 of cardiac arrest in connection with the traumatic brain injury he suffered earlier in the game. In August, in Mississippi, Byhalia High School sophomore Dennis Mitchell died at age 16 after collapsing on the sideline after leaving the game. Although Mitchell’s family and the Coahoma County coroner provided conflicting accounts of the exact timeline of events, all agree that a certified athletic trainer was not present at the game.)
Deaths, of course, represent the worst possible outcome of youth football. Far more common, however, are injuries that take players out of games, end their seasons, or leave them with lifelong disabilities. Here is a snapshot of injuries that took place under Friday night lights on Nov. 9:
In Virginia, Brentsville kick returner Kevin Peterson suffered an apparent hip or kidney injury during the opening kickoff. The high school athlete was removed from the field on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital by ambulance.
In Texas, Abernathy High School senior running back/safety Kole Carlisle went down after a pass reception, and was taken off the field in a cart. His coach described the season-ending ankle injury as a “freak accident” that had the young player facing surgery.
In New York, Notre Dame High School center/linebacker Hunter Homerada suffered a dislocated kneecap and left the stadium in an ambulance.
In North Dakota, Thompson High School quarterback Cadyn Schwabe experienced a game-ending collarbone injury.
In North Carolina, Charlotte Christian defensive back Jeremiah Gray injured his right leg in the first quarter and did not return to the game. His father later tweeted that the injury was a spiral fracture of his right fibula.
In Oregon, Sheldon High School quarterback Michael Johnson Jr. collapsed to the field with a non-contact knee injury.
At the junior high level, perhaps the most catastrophic injury of the week took place in Texas. Livingston Junior High School player Jeremiah Jefferson, 13, was paralyzed and hospitalized due to a head-on collision on Nov. 6. As his godmother explained, “Jeremiah’s fifth vertebra in his neck was shattered instantaneously. He lost any ability to move from the chest down.”
Although the NFL had no deaths or paralysis during Week 10, the pros still earned a good portion of this reel:
Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin left the stadium in an ambulance after spitting up blood due to an “undisclosed injury” that turned out to be the result of a block to the chest.
Miami Dolphin Jakeem Grant was carted off the field with an injured Achilles tendon.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby’s season ended with a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament. Ditto for Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams.
Jacksonville Jaguars center Brandon Linder was carried off the field and will undergo season-ending knee surgery.
These few examples are from Week 10. As of Nov. 14, the current NFL injury list compiled by Pro Football Reference features just under 450 entries, not a big change from 2017, which had a few more than 450. Some of the more eye-catching injuries that have kept professional players off the field include:
In a summer practice session, Carolina Panther Ross Cockrell broke the tibia and fibula in the same leg, requiring surgery. “To hear a grown man scream, you know it’s not good,” a teammate said. Two days earlier, fellow Panther Daryl Williams was also heard screaming during practice when he tore his medial collateral ligament and dislocated his kneecap.
Sitting out the entire 2018 season is Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller, who underwent eight surgeries — but avoided amputation — following the “gruesome” dislocation of his knee while catching a touchdown pass last season.
San Francisco 49ers teammates Raheem Mostert and Emmanuel Moseley ended their seasons together in Week 9 when Mostert fractured his right forearm and Moseley dislocated his shoulder, leading to surgery for both.
Darqueze Dennard of the Cincinnati Bengals is still out after suffering a Week 6 dislocation of his sternoclavicular bone, which connects the sternum to the collarbone. “Had the bone popped backward” into the lungs, aorta, or trachea, noted Cincinnati.com, “he would likely have been headed for emergency surgery.”
This highlight reel represents only a small fraction of the injuries that have taken place this year on football fields across the United States. The tragic deaths of several high school football players show the extraordinary price a child can pay to participate in the game. In some cases, the injuries spotlight how athletic trainers or other health professionals are sometimes unavailable to provide immediate medical attention on the sidelines of youth games.
Despite recent efforts to better protect athletes, such as the helmet rule in the NFL and new state policies for high school players, football is still fundamentally a full-body collision sport. With weekly medical emergencies, surgeries, and injuries associated with dysfunction and chronic pain, the risks to players’ health — even without the plague of concussions — remain profound.
Kathleen Bachynski is a postdoctoral fellow at the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Health. Lisa Kearns is a senior research associate in the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine. Arthur Caplan is professor of bioethics and director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Health School of Medicine.