'It's Forever Tough' – Heartbroken Family Whose 15-Year-Old Son Died Playing Football Works to Save Young Athletes from Similar Fate
After their son Matthew died playing high school football, the Gfeller family has vowed to help protect young athletes
This story is the final installment in a PEOPLE series on high school football deaths. The mother of late football player Tyrell Cameron also spoke to PEOPLE about losing her son – and forgiving the player involved in the fatal collision on the field. And the experts weighed in with their alarm over the 13 high school football deaths this past season.
Neither Lisa nor Bob Gfeller saw the football play that killed their son.
But they each have very clear memories of the rest of that fateful night in August 2008.
“It was towards the end of the game and they were losing, but we were excited for Matthew because he got to play,” Lisa, 54, remembers. She talked to the R.J. Reynolds High School sophomore at halftime. “He was just thrilled.”
Matthew was both passionate and sensitive. He loved football, his friends and his family. He was looking forward to getting his driver’s license, and he was over the moon about playing in his first varsity football game. After every huddle, before every play, he told his teammates, “I won’t let you down.”
The deadly collision happened in the fourth quarter on the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, field. A helmet-to-helmet hit immediately knocked number 57 out.
“Matthew didn’t see it coming,” his dad, Bob, 54, tells PEOPLE. “He was hit on the left side of his head hard, then he hit the ground pretty hard as well, but it was a totally legal block.”
“I saw the game stopped, and Bob said, ‘Somebody’s down.’ It just goes into slow motion after that,” Lisa says.
There were a lot of people crowding the field and blocking their view, but Bob says he knew instantly that the fallen player was Matthew.
“I could see his cleats. He had his older brother Robbie’s cleats on and he wasn’t moving.”
Matthew, 15, never woke up. He died two days later.
“It’s forever tough,” Bob says. “I have a slideshow in my mind of what happened. I can see all the images from the minute I saw him on the ground to the minute we left the hospital. It’s terrible, and I don’t want people to have to go through this. That’s what motivates you.”
A year after they lost their son, Bob and Lisa created the Matthew Gfeller Foundation to help prevent and treat youth sports head injuries and make sure kids “play it safe.” They also built the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is now home to some of the top doctors and researchers in the field.
“We have to be forward-looking, that was part of our recovery. We don’t want any family to have to go through something like that. The good happens by getting involved,” Bob says.
He got more than involved. Bob quit his high-profile job at Lowe’s corporate headquarters to serve as president of the foundation while also working as the executive director of the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma. The two organizations work in tandem, studying the impact of head trauma on young athletes.
Dr. Joel Stitzel leads a head impact study that the Childress Institute funded, thanks, in part, to the Gfeller Foundation.
The study – the first of its kind – looks at the cumulative effects to a high school football player’s head over a season of hits. While the study is ongoing, doctors have already documented changes in young people’s brains after a single season playing football.
Stitzel says another big issue in youth football is a lack of athletic trainers on the sidelines. The Gfeller Foundation helped pay for trainers in youth football leagues across North Carolina to help catch concussions.
“Some of the other studies they’ve helped fund have resulted in rule changes with Pop Warner practice drills and rule changes across the country,” Stitzel adds.
Dr. Christopher Whitlow, another researcher with the head impact study, says he’s glad people are finally realizing the importance of looking at the impact of football on youth and high school players, instead of just focusing on those in the NFL.
“All these NFL players likely started off as youth and high school players. A lot of people say this work is going to kill football, but it’s really work that could save football. We want to keep [the players] healthy, and to do that we have to start at the very beginning.”
Whitlow says the Gfellers are having a huge impact on the futures of young players, and he is amazed at the work they are doing to honor their son’s memory.
“What an example to everyone. It’s not an easy thing to do – the worst thing that can happen to a person, and they turned that tragedy into something good. Their legacy for the future – they will have helped others avoid that tragedy.”
Bob and Lisa say they still think about their son daily. They and their two other kids each wear sterling silver bracelets with a special inscription.
“I won’t let you down,” the script reads.
“I wear it every day,” Bob says. “That’s kind of who he was. He was so focused on others, he knew people were counting on him, and he wanted to deliver.”
Now, the Gfellers say, it’s their turn.