Loved ones, mourning the loss of three teens at different schools, are left with questions about the sport's safety
Several hundred people assembled on a crowded football field in Elwood New York on Thursday evening, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs. Many of them wore football jerseys and team colors of Shoreham-Wading River High School.
But this was not a joyous crowd gathering to cheer on their favorite team. They were there to celebrate the short life of Tom Cutinella, a 16-year-old student who had died on the same field just 24 hours earlier.
The sudden death wasn’t the first one on the gridiron this week. Two other students died while playing high school football in the past seven days, raising questions about the sport’s safety and prompting schools across America to take special precautions to keep their players safe.
According to reports, Cutinella had collided with an opponent during a game on Wednesday night. Although he initially stood up after the collision, he quickly collapsed. He was transported to the hospital where he later died of his injuries.
“It was the result of a typical football play,” Superintendent Steven Cohen told reporters. “It was just a freak accident. He was beloved by everyone who knew him and touched everyone in this community very deeply.”
When asked by a reporter whether Cutinella had sustained a concussion, he said it was not the right time to discuss it. “Right now, our focus is really on the suffering that Tom’s family and this community is going through,” he said.
More than 1,100 miles away, a similar tragedy had occurred on a football field in Troy, Alabama. On Sunday, Demario Harris died in a hospital room, just two days after making a tackle in a football game for Charles Henderson High School.
Like Cutinella, he initially walked back to the huddle, but then collapsed on the field. The school claimed in a press conference that Harris died of an aneurysm, but his father, Demario Harris Sr. disputed it on Facebook.
“My family and me are dealing with a rough situation and we appreciate everyone’s well wishes and prayers,” he wrote. “And contrary to various media reports, my son had a brain hemorrhage, not an aneurysm, that was caused by a hit he took during Friday’s game. He may have had a pre-existing condition, but there is no way to tell now. Anyway, I want everybody to celebrate my son’s life and remember him as the wonderful person he was.”
Harris was a standout defensive back who was being heavily recruited by several colleges.
On Sept. 26, Isaiah Langston, a 17-year-old linebacker at Rolesville High School in Rolesville, North Carolina, collapsed on the field before a game. Although he had gone through team warmups, he had not yet made a play on the field.
The official cause of death is unknown, but his brother, Aijalon Langston, told ABC11 that his collapse “had something to do with a blood clot on his brain.”
With three young lives cut short in a week, parents have raised the inevitable question of football safety. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, about 1.3 million high schoolers participate in organized football every year. Last year eight high schoolers died playing football, according to UNC Chapel Hill study.
In January, Mississippi became the final state to establish protocols for preventing, identifying and treating concussions sustained during practices and games. Although the laws vary, all 50 states have now implemented safeguards to make high school football safer since 2009.
To better understand the impact of a hard tackle, researchers at UNC and Wake Forest University are studying results from sensors in helmets. “Players experience many more impacts during practice than they do in games,” said Wake Forest Baptist Health professor Joel Stitzel. “We’ve found that a half to two-thirds of injuries are sustained in practice.”
As experts study the safety of football, friends and families continue to mourn the loss of the three boys who died this week. “I felt like he wasn’t just my brother,” said Isaiah Langston’s older brother, Aijalon. “He was most people’s – he was their brother, too, their friend, a shoulder they could lean on.”