A young athlete from Georgia has died after a football-related traumatic brain injury during a game on Sept. 28. Officials say there was no indication that he was seriously injured until partway through the third quarter when he lost consciousness. The death highlights how even seemingly minor incidents can have catastrophic consequences when it comes to brain injuries.
Football Player Who Died from Brain Injury Was Only 16 Years Old
The injury itself initially seemed like a leg injury, officials later said. On Sept. 28, 2018, 16-year-old Dylan Thomas was playing linebacker in a football game for the Pike County High School Pirates. During the third quarter, refs stopped play for the injured athlete, who, according to an investigation by the Georgia High School Association, fell while pursuing a play and indicated an issue with his leg.
Although at first Thomas was able to stand—with assistance—and speak with staff, his condition quickly went downhill. About seven minutes after leaving the field, while talking to the team’s athletic trainers about losing feeling in his leg, Thomas became incoherent and the lost consciousness, falling off the bench at the sidelines. He awoke shortly after and said, “I can’t feel my body.” Thomas then lost consciousness again. An ambulance took him to WellStar Spalding Regional Hospital and a helicopter later flew him to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Over a period of up to 45 hours, medical staff fought to save Thomas’s life with multiple surgeries and life-saving procedures but doctors pronounced him dead on Sept. 30. No autopsy was performed but officials declared the cause of death to be “cardiac arrest, due to, or as a consequence of a closed head injury,” according to Pike County Coroner Terrell A. Moody.
Georgia Teen was a Healthy Athlete Before Traumatic Brain Injury
Moody further noted that Thomas showed no signs of any pre-existing injury during his physicals or when doctors treated him at the hospital. The coroner said that Thomas’ injury was an anomaly that required “the perfect amount of pressure on the perfect spot at the perfect angle.”
In an obituary for him, Thomas’ family remembered him as living life to the fullest and as a loving brother and son. Coach Brad Webber remembered Thomas as having a big heart and being afraid to seriously hurt someone on the field.
A funeral for Thomas brought out hundreds of people, with teammates wearing their red jerseys. On the Pirates’ first game after Thomas’ death the team prayed in the end zone and released red and black balloons.
Georgia High School Association Releases Statement on Thomas’ Death
Following the high school athlete’s traumatic brain injury, officials investigated the events that led up to Thomas’ death, including reviewing game footage to see if they could see when Thomas was hit. The Georgia High School Association released a statement on the young athlete’s death, noting that at no time did it appear he suffered an injury before he fell and reported a problem with his leg. The statement, written by Executive Director Dr. Robin Hines, also notes that Thomas was wearing a 2018 model Riddell Flex helmet during the game.
According to one report, in the second quarter Thomas was hit by two players and was slow getting up. Following that moment, however, he continued playing. Officials did not say if that hit was the moment Thomas suffered the catastrophic injury.
Young Athlete Deaths Linked to Football Happen Yearly
Unfortunately, the Thomas family isn’t the only to suffer the heartbreak of having a young athlete die from football-related injuries. Those injuries include direct injuries—where the athlete dies from on-field trauma, such as a spinal fracture—or indirect injuries—including heatstroke or other exertion-related injuries.
Researchers for the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, writing the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, found 13 young athletes died from football-related injuries—both direct and non-direct—in 2017. Of the four direct injury deaths, three involved brain injuries and one involved the spinal cord. Of the indirect fatalities, there were five cardiac-related deaths, three heat stroke deaths, and one non-traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage. Furthermore, researchers found, since 1990, 67 of 75 head and neck deaths involved brain injuries and since 1960, most direct fatalities were caused by brain and neck injuries.
“Continuing to reduce head and neck injuries in the sport is paramount,” researchers wrote.
The survey only examined deaths linked to football related injuries, not athletes who suffered permanent injury as a result of playing football. Brain injuries and concussions can still be devastating even if they are not fatal.
Football Under Scrutiny for Brain Injuries
Football organizations at all levels have come under scrutiny for their high levels of brain injuries. Amateur and professional athletes are at risk for traumatic brain injuries because football is physical and collision-heavy. A class-action lawsuit against the NFL, brought by thousands of former players who alleged the NFL was aware of the tie between concussions and serious brain injury, resulted in a $1 billion settlement. As of October 2018, approved claims totaled over $560 million.
The families of some former players have chosen to opt out of the class action lawsuit and file independent suits. Recently, the family of Junior Seau settled its lawsuit with the NFL. Seau committed suicide in 2012 and an autopsy showed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition linked to head trauma.
An active lawsuit against football helmet maker Riddell Inc. remains.