BROCKTON — Ten years ago, during a football game between Westfield-Brockton and Portville, the way many people viewed high school sports in Western New York changed forever.
Damon Janes, a junior running back from Brockton, suffered a head injury during a play in September 2013. Janes lost consciousness and was transported to a hospital. Three days later, in a Buffalo hospital, Janes died at the age of 16.
Appallingly, the tragedy that claimed Janes’ life is not unique. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, Janes was one of eight players whose deaths were directly related to high school football in 2013. Numerous others died this year from indirect causes, such as heatstroke or sudden cardiac arrest associated with exertion in general, but not just for football.
Janes’ mother, Penny Gilbert, believes “firmly and wholeheartedly” that injury prevention and management needs to be addressed on a large scale. However, after years of talking about the importance of the topic, Gilbert “got tired of talking on deaf ears.”
Safety advances have been seen in the sport of football in the decade since Janes’ death, including increased education to identify traumatic brain injuries, a national coaching focus on proper tackling techniques by USA Football, and safer helmets implemented at many levels across the country . But with the nature of a contact sport like football, there will always be serious risks of injury.
“Unnecessary injuries are not going to go away. I’ve said it a lot,” Gilbert said. She said people were “writing it off” as comments from a grieving parent or justifying their decision to let their children play sports by viewing what happened to Damon Janes as a “horrible accident”.
“They really lack the full understanding that their kids might not come home,” Gilbert said.
Despite these risks, Gilbert doesn’t want opportunities through sports to be taken away from children. Despite the tragedy of losing his son, Gilbert sees the benefits of sports for children.
“The last thing I would want to see is the sport being taken away. It builds so much structure, confidence, unity, camaraderie and teamwork,” Gilbert said. “They stay active and fit. It builds character, commitment and in some cases a sense of belonging.”
What Gilbert wants to see is an increased investment in safety in youth athletics, including the addition of athletic trainers and newer, safer equipment. In doing so, Gilbert believes the investment will benefit student-athletes not only during competition, but outside of the game as well.
“Athletics go hand in hand with academics. Many kids get full college scholarships to further their education through sports. It’s time to stop withholding funds for this. It was about time… long overdue,” Gilbert said. “Lack of funding and broken policies in schools are leading to broken children in our future.”
Gilbert and Janes’ family sued multiple school districts after his untimely death because they claimed his death could have been prevented. Some of the problems that arose a decade ago with Janes’ tragic death remain, most notably the lack of athletic trainers at many sporting events in Western New York.
“All schools should receive financial support to fund these extracurricular activities,” Gilbert said. “The time to throw money at the betterment of our rural youth is now.”
At a recent Fredonia Central School Board of Education meeting, following multiple injuries sustained at a Fredonia football game, Fredonia resident Marie Persch spoke about the risks to players in high school sports. First, a Brockton teacher, was the athletic director at Brockton Central School when Janes died.
“I can tell you from personal experience that it’s going to be very difficult for you personally to recover from a child that doesn’t come back,” Persch told the Fredonia Board of Education, referring to Janes’ death as she fought back tears .
Also speaking tonight was Susan Johnson, a Fredonia parent whose son suffered a concussion during a game. She noted that the district’s concussion management policy is not available online for review. In the following weeks, the policy was updated and released to the public.
“I applaud the ladies who spoke out in Fredonia. I hope they can make a difference,” Gilbert said. “Although I’m not holding my breath.”