ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
So far this year, at least 19 people have died directly or indirectly from playing football. Most of them are high school kids. This is according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, and the center says that number is higher than the recent average.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Now we're going to take a look at how these football deaths affect the communities where they happen and the players. Earlier this season, Cam'ron Williams (ph), a high school junior from Alto, Texas, died after collapsing on the sidelines. Lauren Silverman of member station KERA went to an Alto High game and sent this report.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: On a Friday night one month after Cam'ron Matthews died, the Alto Yellowjackets bounded out of their black and yellow inflated tent through an artificial cloud of mist onto the field. On Friday nights, it feels like just about everyone from the small town of Alto comes out to watch the boys play. Some parents, like Misty Collins, get there early to stake out a spot on the metal bleachers. Collins was there last month when 16-year-old Cam'ron Matthews told the coach he felt dizzy then collapsed on the sideline.
MISTY COLLINS: We just all prayed. We prayed that, you know, he was going to be OK, but the good Lord took an angel.
SILVERMAN: An angel - that's how people talk about Matthews. The 6-foot safety was one of the team's captains - the only junior elected.
COLLINS: He was an awesome student and very polite, and anything that come out of his mouth was, yes, Ma'am, no Ma'am. And he's just an awesome - he was an awesome guy.
SILVERMAN: After he collapsed, medics took Matthews to a hospital in East Texas. Doctors told the family he likely died from a brain aneurysm, but they're still waiting for autopsy results. In the meantime, we asked a neurosurgeon what he thought. He said physical activity like playing football or another sport could cause a brain aneurysm to burst. Kids with a family history of aneurysms are more risk.
Matthew's friend and teammate Keenan Johnson said it's been hard to get back in the groove. But instead of fall apart, the team's actually pulled together.
KEENAN JOHNSON: It hurts that he's not here. You know, he's one of my closest friends, and we worked out all summer. But you know, we dedicated to him. We trying to win the state championchip for him, be No. 1 for him.
SILVERMAN: In the opening round of the playoffs, the Yellowjackets faced a longtime rival, Groveton Indians, and Matthews was on the sideline in a way. His number one jersey was perched on a wooden hanger for folks in the stands to see. His sister Paige sat in the bleachers at the 50-yard line.
SILVERMAN: The Yellowjackets won 63 to 14. Parents rushed onto the field to thank head coach Paul Gould. Gould said he's proud of how the players are handling their teammate's death.
PAUL GOULD: I think they're doing probably about as good as possible. But this is something they're going to deal with the rest of their lives, you know?
SILVERMAN: Gould knows some parents are concerned about injuries associated with football, especially concussions. This year, the governing body for high school sports in Texas says it will start counting concussions for the first time. After Matthews died, Gould said not a single parent pulled their kid from the team. He hopes what happened doesn't fuel negative ideas about the game.
GOULD: I can say this. What football teaches kids for the rest of their life, in my opinion, is priceless. I mean, it teaches you to deal with things. This situation is definitely teaching our kids to deal with things as they move forward.
MCEVERS: That was Lauren Silverman reporting from Texas. A lot of these football deaths happen after a tackle on the field. One player dies; another survives. Brad Gaines is one of those survivors. He played football in high school and college. Two of his brothers played in the NFL.
BRAD GAINES: What our family was built around was athletics. You went from football to basketball to baseball and then back to football, to basketball, to based. And it never stopped.
MCEVERS: In 1989, Gaines was in his junior year at Vanderbilt - a fullback. And on October 28, they were playing Ole Miss. Vanderbilt is near the end zone. The quarterback sends a short pass to Gaines.
GAINES: As soon as the ball reaches my hands...
MCEVERS: He gets tackled.
GAINES: Bang - just a fantastic hit from the back and breaks up the pass, and he just makes a great play.
MCEVERS: But the player who tackled Brad Gaines did not get back up off the ground.
GAINES: Five minutes went by, and then 10 minutes went by. And you still don't think anything major.
MCEVERS: And at that moment, you didn't know his name.
GAINES: No, no, no, no.
MCEVERS: But had later learned that his name was...
GAINES: Chucky Mullins.
MCEVERS: Chucky Mullins was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis. He was paralyzed.
GAINES: You know, I had the doctor tell me sometime later that his neck looked as if you dropped a grenade down his shirt. It was not good.
MCEVERS: And you later visited him in the hospital.
GAINES: I did. And so Kelly, I struggled with this 'cause I had never been through this.
GAINES: I mean, the only thing I knew was you, you know, you strapped up your cleats before practice. You went out and played, and it was fun. I didn't know that there was this other part to this game. In an instant, he goes from being a world-class athlete in the best conference in America. And now he's lying on his back, and he'll never move again. I just felt like I was the cause of that.
And so I told myself, I've got to go meet him. And I drive my old beat-up car down there. I went in, Kelly, and I was not prepared for what I was seeing, you know? His body has physically deteriorated. He has cords, tubes. And so he - you know, he has this trachea in his mouth, and he can't speak. And you know, he can puff and - so you know, you got to lean your ear down to his mouth, to that trachea area. And when I leaned down, Kelly, he said, it's not your fault. And oh, my goodness - I mean, it's tough saying it now. I tell you, it was a total selfless act on his part. I don't know if I could've done that.
MCEVERS: Brad Gaines kept visiting Chucky Mullins. They became friends. Then a year-and-a-half after the tackle, Chucky Mullins died of complications from the injury. Brad Gaines quit football for a while then played again. And now when someone dies playing football, he gets calls from the players who survived. He talks to them about the guilt but says he doesn't blame football.
GAINES: I know that it's not the game's fault. I know that. And I know that there are going to be injuries in plays like that. There will be kids that will lose their life on that field every year. I mean, that's just part of the game. But when you love the game, you accept that. You accept that there could be consequences like this.
MCEVERS: You have kids, right?
GAINES: I do. I have three girls, but I do have a son, yes.
MCEVERS: Does he play football?
GAINES: He does. And the - I think the normal instinct would be to not let him play. But I can't do that. I can't - that would not be fair to him if I said, you're not going to play football because you're going to get hurt or of some of the things that I've went through.
MCEVERS: Have you told your son about Chucky Mullins?
GAINES: He does know about Chucky.
MCEVERS: And I understand your son chose to wear a specific number.
GAINES: He did. Chucky was number 38. He said, Dad, you know, I want to wear a 38. And it made my heart feel really good.
MCEVERS: That's Brad Gaines, a former football player for Vanderbilt University. He says he still visits Chucky Mullins's grave every year.
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