Aug. 16, 1997 CHAPEL HILL -- Five high school football players died from injuries suffered on the playing field during the 1996 season, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. Another 12 -- including one professional and one college player -- died, but their deaths came from heart failure and other conditions not directly linked to football.
"Of the five direct deaths, four resulted from injuries to the brain and one from a blow to the chest from a helmet," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of physical education, exercise and sport science at UNC-CH.
"We found two heatstroke deaths in 1996," Mueller said. "During the 1995 season, there were four heatstroke deaths, which made no sense since proper precautions should prevent all such deaths."
Chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee on Football Injuries, Mueller directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, located on the UNC-CH campus. Each year, the center issues reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.
Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.
Nine young men were permanently paralyzed last year, including six in high school and three in college, Mueller said. Five high school players suffered head injuries, which resulted in brain damage with some permanent disability.
"Coaches need to remind players continually to keep the head out of football," Mueller said. "No player should make initial contact with his head when blocking and tackling."
Shortened practices and non-contact drills during which players do not wear helmets also help prevent heatstroke and reduce accidents, he said. Coaches should allow players as much water as they want and call regular cooling-off breaks.
Mueller attributed the drop in deaths directly caused by football to rule changes adopted in 1976 that prohibited using the head as the first point of contact during blocking and tackling. In 1968, 36 young men died after injuries in practice or games. In 1970, eight players died from heatstroke. Before 1955, no deaths from becoming overheated were recorded among football players. Mueller said the reason may be that few schools and homes had air conditioning before then, and boys and young men likely were better able to tolerate the heat.
Parents should ensure that youngsters who want to play football have a physical examination and that their coaches know and teach safe playing techniques, the UNC-CH professor said. They also should ask whether insurance and medical assistance are available in case of injuries.
The annual survey of football deaths and injuries began at Yale University in 1931, moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1965. It is sponsored by the American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.
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