Safety in high school sports still evolving; Football-related deaths are rare

AKRON, Ohio - The death of high school football player Andre Jackson of Euclid has raised new questions about the dangers of playing football.

Jackson died of perotinitis after suffering a ruptured bowel when he took a blow to the abdomen in a game against Solon.

Dr. Joseph Congeni, a sports medicine expert at Akron Children's Hospital, calls the injury extremely rare.

"This was really an unfortunate set of circumstances, and I really feel for this kid and his family."

Congeni said the number of deaths related to high school football across the country are very small every year.

"A lot of people want to lump everything into football.  There are 2 million kids approximately who are playing and there are a handful of cases a year. But the big three are heart, head and heat," said Congeni.

Most of the deaths from football are attributed to heat, undetected heart problems or head trauma.

Local high school athletic directors and athletic trainers are also paying close attention.

Carley Whitney is the assistant athletic director of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron and calls Jackson's death an athletic department's worst nightmare.

"Football is a physical sport and anything can happen, but the knowledge and the readiness and the speed at which your medical staff is prepared for is critical. We have an athletic trainer at every home event, regardless of the sport," Whitney said.

Whitney said St. Vincent-St. Mary's athletic trainers, coaches and medical consultants all have a close working relationship and said the safety of their athletes is a priority. She said she understands there is a lot of contact in football and injuries cannot be completely avoided or predicted.

Stacey Buser is the program director for the athletic training program at the University of Akron. She also credits athletic trainers, who are the first to respond on a field when there is an injury, for their training and ability to make life saving decisions.

But Buser said not every high school has a full-time trainer, who can be there to help when someone is injured during a practice.

"Athletes are bigger, faster, stronger now than ever before so I think those types of injuries are bound to happen. But I think we are doing all we can to educate parents and athletes and coaches about proper conditioning, proper training and proper hitting techniques," Buser said.

High school athletes are also encouraged to discuss any injuries or health concerns with trainers.

Renee DeSalvo is the athletic trainer at Willoughby South High School. She said while football gets the most attention, there is a risk of serious injury when playing any sport.

"In one day, I had three kids who went down with heat illness, dealing with a back injury on the football field while these heat illness issues were happening at a cross country meet," DeSalvo said.

"We pay attention to how much they are hitting, how they are hitting. There are rules on how they should hit. There's rules on what is appropriate and what is not.

Dr. Congeni said the safety of the game of football is something that is constantly evolving,

"I'm not sure about totally eliminating (the risk of serious injury), but if the question is 'Is there still room to improve on the prevention side of things?' I think the answer is yes," Congeni said.

Akron Children's Hospital