Perhaps nothing is more synonymous with autumn in Kansas than Friday nights at the football field.
The pomp and circumstance of high school homecomings and long-fought rivalries is ingrained in the fiber of many communities, large and small, across the state.
Earlier this week, the death of Luke Schemm, a football player at Wallace County High School in western Kansas, was a sobering reminder of how quickly those celebrations can turn into tragedy.
Schemm’s parents say his death was a freak accident, and that football is not to blame.
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Seven other high school football players have died across the United States this fall, leading to a national discussion: Is the sport safe for high schoolers to play?
“It’s a fair question,” said Steve Martin, football coach at Wichita Northwest High School. “I guess since football (was) so ingrained in me growing up, I think football is still safer than your teenage boy driving a car.”
Including Schemm, there have been eight reported fatalities this fall in high school football.
Of those eight, seven died of injuries directly incurred while playing football; Georgia football player Rod Williams reportedly died from complications of pre-existing hypertensive heart disease during practice.
The last time a Kansas high schooler died from football-related injuries was in 2013, when Shawnee Mission West senior Andre Maloney died after suffering a stroke during a game.
In 2010, a player from Spring Hill High School – which is south of Olathe – died of a subdural hematoma after having a re-bleed from an earlier hematoma, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.
In 1998, two Wichita-area high school football players – Robert Alexander Barrett of Wichita Southeast and Matthew Whittredge of Circle – died of heat stroke on the first day of practice.
Since 1998, multiple safety measures have been put in place to improve player safety, said Bob Colgate, who oversees football for the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“High school football, I would say, is safer now than it ever has been,” said Colgate, who doubles as the federation’s director of sports and sports medicine. “I’m looking back one, two, five, 10, 15 years – our rules have really evolved.
“This game’s changed. Kids are bigger, faster and stronger. It’s no longer between the hash marks – it’s sideline to sideline. The game changed and the rules had to change.”
The prohibition of “spearing” – blocking or tackling leading primarily with the head – starting in 1971 was the first step to minimizing injuries in high school football, according to the federation.
Subsequent refinements to the spearing rule and others – more concussion regulations and heat stroke awareness training – have continued to improve safety, according to the federation.
However, data from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which tracks football fatalities, shows that high school students still represent the overwhelming majority of deaths among football players at all levels.
According to the center, there are 1.1 million high school players compared to approximately 100,000 post-high school players, and 3 million sandlot/youth football players.
Larry Cooper, chair of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s secondary school athletic trainer committee, said injuries can be magnified in young athletes.
“We do know that older athletes return from concussions faster, and when I mean return, their symptoms are resolved, they don’t last as long and they don’t have near the issues as a young person,” said Cooper, who serves as head athletic trainer at Penn Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pa.
The number of high schoolers playing football nationally is declining from its peak around 2008 and 2009, both at the 11-player and 8-player levels, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Cooper said he frequently hears of parents who want to pull their kids from the sport because of safety concerns.
“You know, that’s not just football – in any sport, there’s inherent dangers,” he said. “Sometimes football gets a bad rap, but there’s inherent dangers for every sport that these kids get involved in.”
Brett Huelsmann, a senior safety at Goddard’s Eisenhower High School, said his mother doesn’t like that he plays football because “she doesn’t want anything happening to me.”
“Whenever I see a death like that … I think about going into a game, ‘What if that happens to me?’ ” Huelsmann said.
“When it comes to game time, I don’t think about it. You just can’t let it get into your head. You have to go out and play.”
Parents of area high school football players say news of Schemm’s death has heightened sensitivity about safety issues in football.
Sonya Bess, parent of Wichita Heights senior defensive back Creighton Sanders, said learning proper fundamentals from an early age goes a long way toward preventing injury.
“Creighton can definitely deliver some hits – I’ve got some of his highlights, which are big hits,” Bess said. “I’m concerned as much about him being injured as him injuring someone and having to live with that. We talk about that often.”
The Kansas State High School Activities Association put in protective measures before the 2015 season that limited contact time in practice to 90 minutes each week.
Mark Lentz, KSHSAA’s assistant executive director for football, said the measures are necessary to prevent injuries from accumulated hits.
“Most people probably weren’t doing that anyway because nobody wants to hit live every day in practice because they want the kids to be ready for game day,” Lentz said. “We minimize risk with all the new rules that come out.
“No matter what you do in life, sports or driving a car or whatever, (it) probably isn’t completely safe. But if we can minimize the risk, that’s what we try to do.”
Some say that increased access to athletic trainers could substantially decrease the rate of reported injuries in high school football.
“In theory, this assertion is hard to refute. In reality, it is, at best, an overwhelming challenge,” the national high school federation said in an online statement. “For the many small schools in remote locations with tight budgets, the availability of a full-time athletic trainer is not possible. In those situations where a full-time trainer is not an option, schools must assign those duties to other individuals and develop an alternate plan for dealing with catastrophic injuries.”
According to the federation, only 37 percent of schools have full-time athletic trainers on staff, though 70 percent have access to them at competitions.
All Wichita high schools have athletic trainers available at both practices and games. The school district employs three full-time athletic trainers and contracts the rest from Via Christi.
The three full-time athletic trainers are stationed at East, North and South high schools; the other schools use the contracted athletic trainers, said Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the district.
During football games, each team brings their own athletic trainer “due to the nature of the game,” Arensman said.
But in rural areas like Wallace County, with a total population less than that of Maize and a total area nearly 100 times greater, it is far more challenging.
The athletic trainers’ association recommends “creative” budgeting in rural areas, potentially hiring graduate assistant trainers or newly credentialed trainers “who are excited about their careers who may be a good fit for those environments,” according to a news release.
“I don’t want to say that having an athletic trainer on the sideline would prevent every death,” said Cooper, with the athletic trainers’ association. “That’s not true. We know that.
“If you have an athletic trainer on the sidelines, you notice injuries – notice if there’s a concussion or if there’s other issues going on, and you can take care of it right then and there.”
Can football be safe?
An official cause of death for Schemm, the Kansas football player who died Wednesday, has not been released, though initial reports indicate he suffered from a traumatic brain injury.
Schemm’s father, David, told ABC News that nothing looked “out of the ordinary” when Schemm was tackled Tuesday night in an 8-Man playoff game against Otis-Bison.
“All the safety equipment was there, and it was honestly just a fluke accident,” his mother, Lisa Schemm, told the network. “He enjoyed playing (football), and it’s not to blame.”
Despite the increased safety measures, improved equipment and better coaching, the fact that football fatalities still happen is disheartening. The New York Times recently reported high schools in Missouri and New Jersey decided to scrap their football programs altogether, amid declining participation and mounting safety concerns.
Alan Schuckman, head coach at Bishop Carroll High School, said football builds character that cannot be taught in a classroom.
“Football is such a great game, and it brings so much to the table,” he said. “I’d hate to see it go away.”