Brain injury blamed in Georgia high school football player’s death

Pike County High School officials posted this picture of Dylan Thomas on its website. Thomas, 17, died Sept. 30, 2018, two days after suffering an injury on the football field.
Pike County High School officials posted this picture of Dylan Thomas on its website. Thomas, 17, died Sept. 30, 2018, two days after suffering an injury on the football field.

Fulton grad critical after collapsing in Tennessee college game

A Middle Georgia school district said Monday it’s trying to piece together what caused the death of a high school student who was hospitalized Friday while playing a football game.

Pike County High School junior Dylan Thomas, 17, who died Sunday evening, suffered a brain injury, officials said. But what caused that injury is a mystery.

Head coach Brad Webber told reporters Monday the team was reviewing video to determine how Thomas, an inside linebacker, was injured because he wasn’t tackling a player beforehand and Thomas initially complained of a leg injury.

“He was talking and (was) fine and then things went bad,” said Webber, who said Thomas became incoherent.

Meanwhile, another student-athlete with Georgia roots was in critical condition Monday afternoon after suffering an injury on the football field this weekend. Christion Abercrombie, a sophomore linebacker at Tennessee State University who graduated from Fulton County's Westlake High School, lost consciousness during a game against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

“He came to the sideline and just kind of collapsed there,” Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said in an interview with The Tennessean newspaper.

Abercrombie suffered a head injury after taking on a block, Reed said.

There's been increased scrutiny of sports injuries, particularly concussions, as scores of former National Football League players have blamed head trauma for other ailments or even committed suicide. Many top-tier college football programs, including the University of Georgia, fail to systematically track by sport the concussions their athletes sustain, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of 62 programs found in December.

About one in eight high school athletes reported they suffered a concussion and head injury during their high school years, say advocates involved in efforts to better protect children playing sports in school. The sports with the top three injury rates were football, girls’ soccer and boys’ lacrosse, according to a 2016-17 national survey done by the Colorado School of Public Health.

Head injuries (23 percent) were the most common among high school student athletes, according to the survey. About 6.5 percent of the injuries required surgery. Some school districts, such as Gwinnett County, organize annual free concussion baseline testing for young athletes.

There are over 200,000 student athletes in Georgia, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Death on the field, while alarming, is statistically unlikely, given the handful reported.

But when it happens, it is devastating.

"I don't even know if my wife's fully recovered from this," said Herbert Nelson, whose son, Jeremy, 12, died while playing in an all-star basketball game five years ago in Gwinnett County. "We have to do anything we can to save these kids."

Nelson said he was ultimately told that his son died of cardiac arrest.

Nelson turned his energy to advocacy, organizing an annual 5K run in his son’s name — it’s called the “Helping Hearts” run — that raises scholarship money. He also turned up at the Georgia Capitol last winter to lobby for legislation that would have mandated sudden cardiac arrest training for coaches, students and parents. House Bill 743, to his frustration, languished.

The legislation cites fainting or seizures during exercise, unexplained shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, racing heart rate or extreme fatigue. Nelson doesn’t recall his son exhibiting such signs of distress.

A review of sports-related school deaths in recent years suggests an array of dangers. Among the causes on the national list compiled by the Youth Sports Safety Alliance: sudden cardiac arrest, enlarged heart, severe head trauma, blunt force injury to other body parts, accidental opioid overdose, stroke, aneurysm, complications from asthma and even undetermined natural causes.

Some conditions can be diagnosed before a kid plays a sport. Others can be missed.

Another issue in recent years has been student-athletes dying while practicing or playing in extreme heat.

Most school districts do not have a written policy for making game-time decisions related to heat and high temperatures. They do, however, follow a Georgia High School Association policy, which follows modified guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine, that offer tips on scheduling practices, the amount of time spent outside depending on the temperature, and when to end a practice. For example, practice is limited to two hours when temperatures are between 87 and 90 degrees.

When temps reach above 92 degrees, all outdoor practices are canceled. Schools violating GHSA written policies can receive fines anywhere between $500 and $1,000.

Webber said Thomas was wearing a Riddell SpeedFlex helmet manufactured this year that is worn by some NFL and college players. The coach insisted football is safe Monday. He described Thomas as a star.

“He was the heart and soul of our team … The sky was going to be the limit.”

2017-18 High School Athletics Participation

Georgia ranks 13th nationally in student athlete participation with 201,467 (boys and girls). Number 1 was Texas with 824,619.

Georgia boys in sports

Baseball: 429 schools, 12,493 participants

Basketball: 444 schools, 13,021 participants

Football: 415 schools, 33,027 participants

Soccer: 392 schools, 11,910 participants

Track & Field: 427 schools, 14,161 participants

Lacrosse ; 111 schools, 4142 participants

Wrestling: 356 schools, 7,799 participants

Georgia Girls in sports

Basketball: 438 schools, 8,777 participants

Lacrosse: 108 schools, 3,420 participants

Soccer: 392 schools 10,355 participants

Fast pitch softball: 403 schools, 7.920 participants

Track and field: 422 schools, 11,208 participants

Volleyball: 347 schools, 8,485 participants

Source: Survey by National Federation of State High School Associations

(Individual students could be counted twice or more. A student playing football and baseball, for example, would be counted as 2 athlete participants.)