August 24, 2010: Denial

“They swelled to the verge of popping. I thought it was just swelling from an intense workout. ” — McMinnville’s Jake Montgomery, on the swelling of his arms in the aftermath of an ‘immersion camp’ [from ESPN article “Cause of Oregon Team’s Woe’s Unknown” — reprinted at the end of today’s post]

On September 26, 2009, my son Chase, then 14, broke his ankle in two places during a football game.  He was the freshman quarterback.  Five guys hit him.  The trainer took a look at his ankle and applied ice.  I appealed to the folks in the stands for some pain reliever and gave it to him myself.  No one suggested we take him immediately to the emergency room.

What followed was a nightmare you would have had to witness to believe.  The short version:

1.  He was admitted to the hospital that night for surgery in the a.m. to repair his broken ankle with a metal plate and screws.

2.  After surgery he was sent home with painkillers.

3.  By 8:00 p.m. that night the pain was so severe — despite the painkillers — that we took him back to the ER where he was finally admitted at 3:00 a.m. because they could not get the pain under control.

4.  For the next 70 hours Chase was examined by a team of pain management experts (usually called in only to administer comfort care to the dying) and numerous pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons, and neurologists.  His pain continued to mount no matter how strong the medication, or how frequently or directly it was administered.

5.  The diagnosis ultimately was “Acute Compartment Syndrome,” a condition in which the muscle expands literally trying to break through the fascia that encases it.  The delay in the diagnosis was due to the fact that he did not present the classic symptoms:  his symptoms included a history of shin splints and restless leg syndrome at night — which we had chalked up to normal conditions an athlete must endure.

6.  In the next week, Chase went through 4 surgeries;  lost 1/3 of his calf muscle;  and experienced irreversible nerve damage.  He lost 3 full weeks of school;  went through 6 months of Physical Therapy 2 – 3X a week;  and through the garbled hearing of one on high doses of narcotics,  heard phrases no 14 year old ought to hear.  “At this point we’re trying to save the leg.”  And “we won’t know for awhile if he will return to sports…our first challenge will be to get him walking again.”

Surgery 1 of 6

7.  Six months later, he had preventative surgery on the other leg, which they determined was prone to the same syndrome, should that one ever be injured.

Miraculously, with the help of gifted surgeons, nurses, and therapists, Chase recovered well.  He regained enough muscle strength and flexibility to letter in baseball the following spring, as a freshman.

Today, I can see a difference in his gait only when he is very tired.  Though he discovered at the ocean this summer that he no longer enjoys going barefoot.  The irreversible nerve damage in his foot disallows him from raising his toes, resulting in the annoying effect of stubbing his toes constantly.

Despite all of this, early in June, while still playing baseball, he began to train for football.

For two months he attended practices.  Worked in the weight room.  Monitored his diet.  Did speed drills.  Lived and breathed football.

For two months, I prayed he would make the decision NOT to play and wrestled with my obligation as his parent to assert my parental privilege and refuse to give my consent for him to play alongside my commitment to support the things he loved and the sports in which he wanted to participate.

One of my primary concerns was that the team had NOT changed significantly since his injury.  Every opponent they played was a team that had more players, most of whom were physically bigger than those on our team.  Rumor had it that our team was going to drop a division;  but that never took place because the division is determined by the number of students enrolled in the school — not the size of the athletes.

In researching the pros and cons of high school football, I also learned that there are significantly more injuries, and the extent of those injuries overall is more serious, in high school football than in college.  This was attributed to the fact that high school students are still growing whereas college athletes are fully mature.  It is also linked to the disparity in the sizes of high school students and the fact that the current system of determining divisions and conferences does not take into consideration the physical composition of players on opposing teams.

After extensive research, and when Chase reported he was the J.V. Quarterback, I decided it would be irresponsible for me to consent for Chase to play football without, at a minimum, interviewing the coach to find out what if any plans he had to ensure that what had happened the previous year would not happen again.  Namely, that our team would not play teams whose speed, size, and sheer number of players dramatically increased the likelihood of our students being crushed before they ever stepped foot on the field.

I made an appointment with the coach fairly certain he would not be able to address my concerns and suspecting I would end up refusing to consent.  This was tough.  It was tough because I knew Chase genuinely loved football.  He had been playing since 5th grade waiting for the elusive win.  He was loyal to his team mates and to his coach.  And he wanted to go out “on his own terms” — not because of an injury.  He saw playing as an opportunity to do just that.

As it turned out, just before I met with the coach, Chase called to tell me he had decided to drop football.  He planned to go in at 6:30 the following morning before practice to tell the coach.  There were many reasons he ultimately made this decision, but one of his reasons was that he simply did not want to break his leg again.  He decided the price he paid had been far too high.

Relief doesn’t even begin to describe my response to his decision.

I write this today because I am concerned that in schools across our country people are denying the very real price that many students are paying to live up to the expectations their coaches, their friends and family, and they themselves have assumed just to play a game that we KNOW has extremely high risks for injuries that could impair them for the rest of their lives.  Especially as a mother, when I’ve tried to explain this to football fans, they have looked at me as if I’m an over-protective alarmist.  I am neither.  I let my son play.  I also spent 8 nights with him around the clock in the hospital as he underwent 4 extensive surgeries, was pumped full of antibiotics and narcotics, and fought with all he had hoping in the end he would be able to walk again, and maybe, to return to the athlete he had been before he got hurt.

Below is an article from ESPN that just hit the news today.  It is about an entire team of high school football players in Oregon who are experiencing injuries similar to what Chase endured.  Nineteen of them have suffered muscle damage.  Five were treated in the ER;  11 were hospitalized;  3 have undergone surgery.  Given what I know now there are 2 things in this story I find deeply disturbing:  the fact that it is suggested that the condition may be the reponsibility (read fault)  of the students for using food supplements — which nearly every high school athlete I know uses to some extent without parents or coaches expressing concern.  AND the chilling closing quote from the mother of a boy who remains hospitalized in which she says they “just want the boys to get better … and they’re all anxious to get back on the field.”

My son is one tough sophomore.  His threshold for pain is higher than most adults I know.  He worked through shin splints (which we now know are an early indicator of compartment syndrome) and muscles so fatigued he couldn’t sleep and returned to practice the next day exhausted.

But the toughest thing I’ve ever seen him do was drop football.  It takes great courage to name the truth when so many you respect and admire are living in denial.  I hope someday he will see this as the win he always wanted, because he did, by the grace of God and the skill of many physicians, walk away on his own terms.

Cause of Oregon team’s woes unknown

“School officials, parents and players remained puzzled Sunday over what caused 19 members of a high school football team in northwest Oregon to suffer muscle damage — three of whom required surgery — following a camp.

The 19 McMinnville High School players all had elevated levels of the enzyme creatine kinase, or CK, which is released by muscles when they’re injured, said Dr. Craig Winkler of Willamette Valley Medical Center in McMinnville. High CK levels can lead to kidney failure if not properly treated.

Three of the players also were diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue condition called “compartment syndrome,” which caused soreness and swelling in their triceps. They underwent surgery to relieve the pressure, Winkler said.

“They swelled to the verge of popping. I thought it was just swelling from an intense workout. ” — McMinnville’s Jake Montgomery, on the swelling of his arms in the aftermath of an ‘immersion camp’

Five of the athletes were treated in the emergency room and sent home. The other 11 were admitted to the hospital and given intravenous fluids to maintain adequate hydration and prevent kidney failure, he said.

Ten boys remained hospitalized Sunday, but they were in good condition and were expected to be released Monday, said Rosemari Davis, Willamette Valley Medical Center’s chief executive officer.

Officials said the cause was still a mystery, but high CK levels can result from vigorous exercise or the use of certain medications or food supplements.

Before their symptoms started this past week, the players were at an immersion camp organized by first-year coach Jeff Kearin. Winkler said the players worked out last Sunday at the high school’s wrestling room, where temperatures reached 115 degrees.

He said the high temperature and dehydration may have played a role. He also said officials will look at water sources and what the kids had to drink, including power mixes.

Winkler said blood test results expected Tuesday could show whether the athletes ingested creatine, which is found in legal high-powered protein supplements. He added officials are not testing for steroids because it would be unlikely for that many students to have access, and “creatine makes way more sense.”

Two players said Sunday they were unsure what caused their injuries but supplements were not a factor.

Jake Montgomery and fellow senior Josh Nice said neither they nor any of the other players have taken any supplements or performance enhancers.

“They don’t know what’s behind this whole thing,” said Nice, a wide receiver hospitalized since Friday. He added he hopes to return to practice as soon as possible.

Winkler said the hospital and school began screening players for CK after the first few were brought to the hospital early last week.

The normal range for CK is 35 to 232 units per liter, but some students showed levels as high as 42,000, putting them at risk of kidney injury, Winkler said. Those with levels in the 3,000 range were treated in the hospital’s emergency room and released, while those with levels above 10,000 were admitted.

Superintendent Maryalice Russell told The Oregonian newspaper she doesn’t believe Kearin’s workout was excessive. She also said she has no evidence steroids or supplements were involved.

“I don’t have any information at this time that would indicate that’s the case,” she said. “I’m continuing to look at additional information as it may come my way.”

A home phone listing for Kearin could not be found. But one of his former Cal State Northridge colleagues told The Oregonian that Kearin is “very conscientious about the high school development and the kids.”

“His personality is not a big, hard-nosed, lineman’s mentality, or a weight-room-mentality guy,” Los Angeles Valley College coach Jim Fenwick said.

Tom Welter, Oregon School Activities Association executive director, said the organization’s medical committee will investigate and make recommendations to the executive board after its next meeting in September. The OSAA oversees school sports in the state.

“It’s a really bizarre situation,” said Nice’s mother, Margaret Nice, whose son Daniel also remains hospitalized. “But we’re all trying to hang in here and hope and pray that they can come up with the answer to what caused this.”

Practices for all fall sports start Monday.

“We just want our boys to get better, and they’re all anxious to get out on the field,” Margaret Nice said.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press


  1. Preaching to the choir in this family. The brain injury statistics alone, if fully disclosed, would be enough to shut down all youth contact sport programs. And therein lies then problem.

    Sounds harsh, but allowing kids to participate really is akin to giving them pistols for a friendly, team-play encouraging, character building game of Russian Roulette.


    1. Wow. Sort of makes the way I positioned it look gentle. But I don’t really disagree with you. It is frightening the way a whole nation seems to be ignoring the truth for the sake of their own entertainment…Friday Night Lights indeed.


  2. This one belongs in the New York Times.
    use a synopsis from the AP/ESPN story as a tease/lede
    and he rest should go stet.

    Down here in NC I read every summer about HS football players collapsing, sometimes dying during or after practicing in hot humid weather in full gear. “We keep them hydrated,” one coach said. “Most kids who are in shape don’t have any trouble.” (Raleigh-News Observer)

    (1)”Most” kids are kids; and 2)High School ain’t the half of it.

    Chase, you are something else. Rock on and do your dreams.


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