This is the first of three stories in a PEOPLE series focusing on this season’s 13 high school football deaths in America.
As soon as Shamikka Cameron took the call, she dropped her cell phone and started crying.
A good friend had just told her that her son, Tyrell, 16, a football player for a Louisiana high school, had been involved in a collision during a game and wasn’t moving. “Tyrell was in the ambulance,” Shamikka tells PEOPLE. “And he went code blue.”
On Sept. 4, the day of the season opener at home at Franklin Parish High, Shamikka and her family had driven to Texas for a cousin’s funeral. Tyrell stayed home so he could play his first varsity football game.
On a punt return near the end of the game, Cody Seward, 17, a player on the opposing team of Sterlington, hit Tyrell.
When Tyrell didn’t get up, and wasn’t even moving, an athletic trainer and paramedic crew on the sidelines rushed onto the field to administer help. Within minutes, Tyrell was being transported to the hospital by ambulance
Meanwhile, Shamikka, her mother, her two other children and a cousin drove the four hours back to Franklin Parish. “My baby boy, he cried the whole way home from Texas,” she says.
They were driving 90 to 100 miles per hour, with Shamikka sensing that Tyrell would not make it.
“My phone was calm and I felt it,” she says. “I felt if it was all all right people would be giving me updates on how he was doing.”
During the ride, Shamikka received a call from a first cousin: Tyrell had broken his neck and was dead. Her feeling upon hearing the news? “Unexplainable.”
The collision was nothing out of the ordinary, according to numerous reports. The traumatic injury was “just one of those freak accidents,” Tyrell’s coach has said.
An autopsy would reveal Tyrell had died of a broken neck and internal bleeding.
“He didn’t suffer,” Shamikka says. “And I can say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ I wouldn’t want my child to suffer.”
A Love for the Game
Tyrell was Shamikka’s firstborn child, the oldest of three. He loved all sports, but particularly football. “That was his thing,” Shamikka says. “He didn’t care if he was carrying the ball, whatever they needed him to do he did it.”
Tyrell started playing when he was 9, and was so good that while in middle school he began working out in the weight room with the high school team. In 9th grade he made the high school varsity team.
Tyrell had hoped to play for either of his two favorite teams, Alabama or Ohio State. “I said, ‘If you do that, baby, I’m following you,’ ” recalls Shamikka. “He told everybody he came in contact with, ‘I’m going to be on TV, I’m going to to the pros.’ ”
If football didn’t work out, Tyrell wanted to become an engineer, and earned all As and Bs in school. “He knew,” she says, “that he was going to be something in life.”
At their modest apartment in Franklin Parish, Tyrell loved the homemade meals from his mother, a cook and dietician at a nearby nursing home. Tyrell, his siblings LaKenra, 15, and Rashad, 12, and Shamikka were a close-knit unit who enjoyed dancing around the apartment or just hanging out. Shamikka’s mom, Sandra Simmons, 52, who lives in the same complex, helped raise Tyrell.
“He loved her as much as he loved his mama,” says Shamikka. “He was a very loving, caring person, a beautiful personality and I just miss him. We just carry him in our hearts.”
In the immediate aftermath of Tyrell’s death, thousands of people gathered to celebrate the teen’s life at a memorial service. Shamikka received hundreds of texts and phone calls, and letters from Christian schools with uplifting spiritual messages.
Scores of people, including the Sterling football team, donated money, chipping in to pay for Tyrell’s funeral and tombstone. The Sterling coach still texts Shamikka to see how she is holding up.
“It was just so many good deeds done,” she says. “There was so much goodness that has come out of this tragedy you know it could be nothing but the Lord. It didn’t matter about color, it didn’t matter about money, people pulled together.”
Also in the days following Tyrell’s death, Shamikka received what turned out to be unsubstantiated information that Cody was so distraught over Tyrell’s death that he was “on a suicide watch.”
“As soon as I found out, I was concerned. I was like, ‘Let me get in touch with the coach, let me see if I could talk to him,’ ” Shamikka says. “The coach told me it wasn’t true. He told me he was having a hard time but was not going to commit suicide.”
“I was like, ‘I would like to talk to him,’ ” she says, “but Cody never called me.”
Days later, Cody arrived at Tyrell’s funeral at the River of Life Church in Winnsboro, along with his parents, Sterlington High School players and their coach. In all, about 200 people from Sterlington attended. The coach asked Shamikka if they could pay their respects to her before the funeral began.
She agreed, and after shaking hands with some of the players, it was time to meet Cody. “I remember seeing his face and the coach said, ‘This is Cody,’ and I looked at him and he looked at me and I just remember hugging him and telling him, ‘It’s okay, it’s not your fault.’ I never felt it was his fault.”
For two months after Tyrell’s death, Shamikka couldn’t return to work. “I thought about not coming back,” she says. “But being in this house all the time by yourself isn’t good.”
She put up pictures of Tyrell on every wall of every room of the apartment. “I am waiting for him to come to me in a dream, that’s what I am waiting on,” she says. “One of my friends said he came to her and he told her to tell me he was all right.”
New Safety Precautions for Players?
Rashad, who took after his brother on the gridiron, doesn’t want to play football anymore – at least for now. “I don’t know if I will stop him if he wants to play,” Shamikka says.
“I feel they need to invest more in our kids, to make sure they have on the right equipment. I feel they need to be more properly trained, and we need to protect our kids more on the field.”
Several weeks ago, Rep. Ralph Abraham, M.D. (R-LA), a sponsor of a bill calling for a study into the causes of high school football deaths, contacted Shamikka. “I said, ‘Thank you for trying to get that bill passed and to protect them better.’ ”
Shamikka attended two games after her son’s death, but the experience of sitting in the stands was so painful she stopped.
A deeply religious Christian, Shamikka has leaned heavily on her faith to get by, crediting God with “holding us in this trying time.”
“He makes no mistakes,” she says. “And you have to trust in his word that he makes no mistakes, and that’s what I am holding onto. I know everything is done for a reason.”
Still, that faith doesn’t prevent the profound sadness that continues to overwhelm her at times; when it arrives, Shamikka goes into her room and cries. It can be triggered by school day mornings, when Shamikka sees her other two children going to school, hurting that Tyrell isn’t going with them.
Or it can happen when her other children become sad.
“Today is a hard day, my girl is having a hard day,” Shamikka says, her voice wavering. “She is very upset and missing her brother. When they get upset I get upset, it’s just been a hard day today.”