Roddrick “Rod” Williams was a popular offensive lineman and tuba player at Georgia’s Burke County High School. On the football field, the bespectacled 17-year-old was known for his hard play and lighthearted song and dance numbers that made teammates laugh.
Earlier this month, one day after the Burke County High School Bears took the field without their beloved No. 71, the Pride of Burke County symphonic band played his favorite songs as part of his funeral service. His tuba rested on the 50-yard line in the school stadium.
Williams’ death was the fifth of a U.S. high school football player since early September. Another high school football player died just last Friday.
The 5-foot-11-inch, 300-pound junior collapsed September 22 shortly after football practice began, CNN affiliate WSB reported. The school trainer performed CPR until an ambulance arrived, according to the station.
His death was heart-related, Burke County Coroner Susan Salemi told CNN, declining to elaborate.
About 3 high football deaths a year
The number of young athletes whose deaths are related to high school football fluctuates from year to year.
In 2014, five high school players died of causes directly related to the sport, such as head and spine injuries, according to a survey by National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR) at the University of North Carolina.
Another six players died of indirect causes: Three were heart-related, one was from heat stroke and two were hypernatremia and water intoxication, the survey found.
“Certainly this is not going to be one of the low years,” said Robert Cantu, medical director for the NCCSIR and a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.
The past decade has seen an average of three fatalities each year directly attributable to high school football, the survey said.
In 2013, there were eight deaths directly linked to high school football.
Between 2005 and 2014, the deaths of 92 other high school football players were indirectly related to the sport, according to the NCCSIR survey.
“These events are incredibly tragic,” said Dawn Comstock, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health.
“I would love to never see another high school athlete die while they play their game but the positive benefits of playing sports in terms of lifelong health are greater.”
The benefits, however, will be of little solace to the families and friends of Williams and the other four high school football players who have died this season.
A high school football player in Illinois died Friday October 23 after being injured the day before during a game, according to CNN affiliate WBBM.
Andre Smith, 17, died of “blunt force head injuries due to a football accident,” according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. The senior at Bogan High School hit his head on the final play of the game, walked off the field but later collapsed, the affiliate said.
According to the Illinois High School Association, Smith was the seventh high school football player to die this year nationwide.
“As anyone who has participated in athletics knows, there is a risk of injury any time a player steps on the field of play. Football, in particular, has been under the microscope over the last decade, and organizations at all levels of play, including high school, have been taking aggressive steps to try and reduce injury over time,” the group said in a statement.
Kenney Bui, 17, a wide receiver and defensive back for Evergreen High School near Seattle, died October 12 after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a game the previous Friday.
Video shows Bui making a hard tackle on a running play and getting back up, CNN affiliate KIRO reported. He was later taken away in an ambulance after taking a hit to the head near the end of the game.
Bui died from blunt force injuries to the head, according to the King County medical examiner’s office.
His father, Ngon, a janitor in Seattle’s public schools, told KIRO he learned of his son’s death via text message: “Your son is dead.”
Close to tears, Ngon Bui said, “I love my son. I don’t want nothing to happen to … kids. And a parent to have to worry.”
Bui’s father asked his son to quit the game after a previous injury, but the teen’s mother and Bui overruled him, the station reported.
Bui suffered a mild concussion in early September and the school referred him to a doctor, Highline School District spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers told CNN on Friday. He was cleared to play after a few days and returned to the field two weeks later, she said.
Evan Murray, a senior at Warren Hills Regional High School in northwest New Jersey, died September 25 after leaving the game with an injury, according to the school.
A GoFundMe page to assist Murray’s family said the quarterback and captain — a popular student who also played baseball and basketball — “felt woozy” after getting hit in the backfield.
“He was always there for all of his teammates. Played hard, all the time. He’s going to be sorely missed by everybody,” baseball coach Michael Quinto told CNN affiliate News 12 New Jersey.
Ben Hamm, a junior linebacker and team captain at Wesleyan Christian School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, died September 19 after suffering a head injury during a tackle in a game eight days earlier, CNN affiliate KOTV reported.
Hamm was in a coma after being rushed to the hospital with bleeding in his brain, according to the station.
His father, Steve, wrote of his son’s death of the team’s Facebook page: “Ben’s condition has deteriorated … because of a lack of oxygen in his blood and this morning I am saddened to let you know that the world has lost a spiritual warrior!”
Tyrell Cameron, 16, a student at Franklin Parish High School in Louisiana, died September 4 after a game injury, the Franklin Parish coroner’s office said. He died at Franklin Medical Center.
Cameron was hit during a punt return in the fourth quarter of the game against Sterlington High School, Franklin Parish head coach Barry Sebren told CNN affiliate KNOE.
Northeast Louisiana Ambulance Service was on the sidelines and rushed onto the field to help.
The cause of death is under investigation, but KNOE reported Cameron broke his neck.
Schools lack full-time trainers
The reason for the high number of high school football fatalities compared to college and the pros comes down to numbers.
There are about 1.1 million high school football players in the nation compared to about 100,000 in the NFL, college, junior college, Arena Football and semiprofessional level, the NCCSIR survey found.
High school football players suffer three times as many catastrophic injuries — deaths, permanent disability, neck fractures and head injuries — as college players, according to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said the developing brains of high school athletes are more vulnerable to catastrophic head injuries.
In addition, the skill level of many younger athletes leaves them susceptible to serious injuries.
Making matters worse, nearly 70% of high school athletes with concussions played despite their symptoms, and 40% reported that their coaches didn’t know of the injury, according to a 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
The risk of serious injuries and death at the high school level is exacerbated by the shortage of full-time athletic trainers at practice and games — due largely to costs.
A study this year in the Journal of Athletic Training said only 37% of the nation’s public high schools have full-time athletic trainers.
“Nearly all of the causes of death in sport are influenced by the care in the first 5 to 7 minutes,” said one of the study’s authors, Douglas Casa, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut.
The five leading causes of death among high school athletes are cardiac conditions, heat stroke, sickling, and head and spinal cord injuries, according to Casa, who’s also the chief executive officer of UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute, which researches sudden death in sport.
“They are all impacted by the level of medical care. Sickling and heat stroke are 100% survivable with proper recognition and care and cardiac is over 90%.”
Exertional sickling is a medical emergency in those carrying the sickle cell trait, according to the institute. It occurs when red blood cells change shape, causing a buildup of the cells in blood vessels and leading to decreased blood flow.
‘High school sports safer than ever’
Comstock and other experts believe schools without full-time athletic trainers should disband their football teams.
Still, the past 10 years have seen significant changes intended to make the game safer for young athletes, according to experts.
Every state and the District of Columbia now has some type of sports concussion law, the National Federation of State High School Associations says. The laws cover issues like removing athletes with a suspected concussion from play and concussion education programs for coaches, though the laws vary significantly from state to state.
This year, the organization recommended limits on the number of days per week that football coaches hold full-contact drills.
“High school sports are probably safer than they’ve ever been,” Guskiewicz said.