The death of one Washington high-school football player and the serious injury of two others last week come even as experts say they’re trying to make the popular pastime safer than ever.
Kenney Bui, 17, died Monday from undisclosed injuries suffered in a Friday night game between the Evergreen and Highline high schools at Highline Memorial Stadium in Burien. He was a senior at the Technology, Engineering and Communications High School run by Highline Public Schools on the Evergreen campus. His family asked for privacy.
“This is a devastating loss for all of us — Evergreen students, families, and staff and our entire Highline community,” Superintendent Susan Enfield said in a statement. The Evergreen game scheduled for Friday against Lindbergh High School in Renton has been canceled, school officials said.
David Young Jr., 17, a senior at Adna High School near Chehalis, remains hospitalized at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center with a neck fracture also suffered Friday that has ended his high-school sports career and raised questions about the future, his family said.
“It’s sad because it’s his senior year and he just wanted to play,” said Young’s mother, Linda Young, her voice thick with tears. David Young, nicknamed “D-Man,” had recently recovered from a broken ankle suffered in a football game last year.
A third player, Ramon Angel Oros, 17, of Pateros High School in Pateros, Okanogan County, was flown to Harborview with a head injury after a game Thursday.
The cluster of fatal and serious injuries is rare but devastating, said Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
“We haven’t had injuries like this since 2009,” he said. “The game has gotten safer. I think we’re doing a good job of teaching technique, but that’s hard to understand when injury does happen.”
Bui, who played wide receiver and defensive back, is the fourth high-school football player to die in the U.S. from game-related injuries in the past month. Tyrell Cameron of Franklin Parish, La., suffered a neck injury; Ben Hamm of Bartlesville, Okla., had a head injury; and Evan Murphy, of Warren Hills, N.J., suffered a lacerated spleen, according to news reports.
Since 2005, 30 deaths have been reported nationwide of high-school players directly attributable to football, according to figures from the National Center for Sports Injury Research in North Carolina. Last year, there were five. That’s an incidence of 0.45 cases per 100,000 participants in a sport where 1.1 million play high-school football.
In Washington state, the last football death was in 2009, when 17-year-old Drew Swank suffered a head injury during a Spokane game. In Western Washington, the last death occurred in 2004 when DeShawn Smith of Tyee High School in SeaTac was hurt in a game against Foster of Tukwila.
Curbing injuries in youth football has become a national focus in the last several years, with Washington state leading the way. The state’s 2009 Zackery Lystedt Law bars youth athletes who show signs of having suffered a concussion from returning to play or practice without a licensed health official’s written approval.
Named for a Maple Valley football player who was permanently disabled after a concussion in 2006, the law has since been adopted in every state.
That’s encouraging, because enrollment in football at the youngest ages has remained steady nationwide, with about 225,000 members, according to Josh Pruce, a spokesman for Pop Warner Football.
The new culture has led to fundamental changes in the sport, Colbrese said. There’s an emphasis on better and safer tackling and on concussion prevention and response. The WIAA implemented a new concussion protocol this year.
“We trained every football coach in the state this summer,” Colbrese said.
That’s a position echoed by Deborah Crawley, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington, which works to prevent brain injuries, including those caused by football and other contact sports.
“We’ve been doing concussion summits across the state,” she said. “They continue to be highly attended by coaches, families and medical practitioners.”
The University of Washington recently received $2.5 million from the National Football League (NFL) for the newly formed UW Medicine Sports, Health and Safety Institute aimed at new ways to prevent sports-related concussions.
Monday night, about 65 people gathered on the Evergreen campus for a private ceremony in Bui’s honor. Attending were students from across Highline School District, some of whom donned football jerseys while others carried balloons and flowers to place outside the school’s front entrance.
The teens exchanged hugs and handshakes in the school’s parking lot before joining the service, where pastor Natasha McCray led them through prayer. McCray, who’s also a basketball coach at Evergreen, said Bui’s death has hit the school community hard but the students have shown strength throughout the day.
“The school community is really grieving now,” McCray said, adding that the campus will offer grief counseling to those who seek it. “This is a critical time for kids,” she said.
Also Monday, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, sent condolences to Bui’s family.
“We are saddened to hear this news,” he wrote in a statement. “Our hearts go out to Kenney’s family, friends and the entire community.”
Victor Lystedt, whose 22-year-old son still needs care, said he doesn’t blame the game of football, but he does want to see more changes to the game.
“Obviously, we haven’t done enough,” he said upon learning about the recent injuries. “We all need to work a little harder.”
A GoFundMe site has been set up to raise money to cover David Young’s expenses.