published Friday, September 27th, 2013

Trion football player back from the brink after spinal contusion

Tyler Gill, center, spins a football in his hands as he talks with teammates Jordan Coker, left, and Tyler Bishop, right, during practice near Sam R. McCain Stadium on Wednesday. Gill had suffered a spinal chord contusion, which was originally thought to be a broken neck, during practice earlier this season and hopes to be cleared for full practice soon.
Tyler Gill, center, spins a football in his hands as he talks with teammates Jordan Coker, left, and Tyler Bishop, right, during practice near Sam R. McCain Stadium on Wednesday. Gill had suffered a spinal chord contusion, which was originally thought to be a broken neck, during practice earlier this season and hopes to be cleared for full practice soon.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

Facts

According to The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research:

• The incidence of catastrophic injuries is very low. Of the 1.5 million high school and middle school football players in 2012, less than one per (0.7) 100,000 suffered a catastrophic injury.

• The rate for college-level players was 2.66 for every 100,000.

• Tackling and blocking have been associated with the majority of catastrophic football injuries. Tackling has been associated with 67.8 percent of catastrophic injuries since 1977.

• A majority of catastrophic injuries occur while playing defensive football. Since 1977, 221 players with permanent spinal cord injuries were on the defensive side of the ball, and 52 were on the offensive side, with 41 being unknown. Defensive backs were involved with 110 (35 percent) of the permanent cervical cord injuries followed by members of the kickoff team (9.6 percent) and linebackers with 9.2 percent.

• In the past 34 years, there have been a total of 314 football players with incomplete neurological recovery from spinal cord injuries. Two hundred-and-fifty-eight of these injuries have been to high school players, thirty-six to college players, six to sandlot players and fourteen to professionals.

• The center defines a catastrophic injury as that resulting in brain or spinal cord injury or skull or spine fracture.

TRION, Ga. — Injuries are a part of football at every level. Brian Gill knew that, but when he saw his son lying motionless on the practice field Aug. 27, the reality of the impact of one ill-timed hit or an awkward fall hit home.

Brian's son, Tyler, is back at practice for the Trion Bulldogs a month after it was feared he might never walk again. The sophomore backup quarterback is, on this early fall afternoon, easily tossing passes with his teammates, laughing, teasing and acting like any other normal, healthy teenager on a football field. He won't play football this season, but for two days it was not known whether he would walk.

Gill, who was diagnosed with a spinal contusion in the T1 vertebra in his neck, said he plans to be back on the field in 2014, but even he admitted that save for an inch here or there he might have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Or worse.

Gill's close call -- he was initially diagnosed with three fractures in his spine -- was preceded by two high school football deaths in a span of a few weeks. Creekside, Ga., player DeAntre Turman died after suffering a broken neck in a scrimmage in August, while 16-year-old Damon Janes died in New York after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game two weeks ago. On Wednesday, Janes' teammates voted to cancel the remainder of their season in memory of their teammate.

Injury-related fatalities are not new to high school football, though statistics provided by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research show those deaths have decreased in recent years. There were no reported deaths in 2012 and, with the two this year, there have been 27 in the past decade. The decade before that, there were 42 such fatalities.

According to a study from the national center at the University of North Carolina, deaths have decreased annually. The number of catastrophic football injuries dropped from 14 in 2011 to three last year.

Asked their opinion on why the numbers had decreased, more than a dozen area coaches and trainers cited improved equipment and an increased focus on proper tackling techniques, spurred in large part by the nationwide focus on concussion-related issues.

The National Football League recently settled a lawsuit for $765 million brought by former players who claimed the league hid the dangers of repeated concussions from them. Three former college players, including former University of Tennessee Vols defensive linemen Chris Walker and Ben Martin, are part of a similar lawsuit against the NCAA.

The legal maneuvers come on the heels of former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau committing suicide at age 43 in May 2012. Seau was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. Since 2011, Seau is one of at least seven former NFL players to commit suicide; two others, including former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling, also suffered from CTE. CNN reported Thursday that Paul Oliver, 29, a former defensive back for the University of Georgia and the San Diego Chargers, was found dead this week, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The NFL, in response to the concussion debate, is backing what it calls Heads Up Football, a series of youth camps across the country that focus on proper tackling techniques. At Trion, those techniques are stressed daily.

"I know that every day we practice tackling the proper way, and I chew their rears if they tackle with their head down," said Trion assistant coach Steve Gladney, who also has 20 years of training as an EMT and who was the first to reach Gill when he didn't get up. "Concussions have become such an issue with the NFL and colleges and now it's come to the high school level. We do baseline tests with athletes, and when they get diagnosed with a concussion they have to reach those baselines before they are allowed to play again. Without all the awareness today that wouldn't have happened."

Trion athletic trainer Rachel Trundle adds that the basic nature of the sport is violent, but that most catastrophic injuries are pure accidents.

"It's just freak stuff," she said. "Tyler's wasn't an excessive hit. Good fundamentals are the key to avoiding head and neck injuries. If you teach the proper techniques you are doing all you can. It's football, and when you're throwing your body at someone at high velocity, accidents are going to happen."

Tyler Gill remembers the play, one that would never stand out if he hadn't ended up in the hospital, numb from the waist down. It's a play he has run dozens if not hundreds of times, but this one ended differently.

"We were running the option and right when I faked the handoff to the fullback and was about to pitch it I got hit by a lineman," he recalled. "Just as I was going down somebody hit me in the back of my neck and I immediately had a rush go through my body and I lost feeling. I don't remember much over the next couple of days, but I remember the doctor talking about my fractures. It was pretty scary."

The Gill family is still trying to unravel the exact cause and possible repercussions of Tyler's injury. They are seeking a second neurological opinion, but as of now there is every intention of letting Tyler return to the field when he's cleared. Getting Tyler to realize he needs to be patient has been one of his father's toughest tasks since his son left the hospital.

"Oh, he wants to play," Brian Gill said. "He just loves sports and he's been playing since he could walk. It's rough on him right now because he's a 16-year-old and he's always on the go. The day of his accident was very rough because we just weren't sure what was going on. You never want to see your son hurt. Dr. [Mark] Cowan, his neurologist, says he should be 100 percent cleared in a few weeks and ready to go next season."

For now the close-knit Trion community is breathing a sigh of relief. When Tyler showed up at the team's first game in a wheelchair he was so inundated with well-wishers that he became a bit uncomfortable with all the attention. That he soon graduated from wheelchair to walker to no aid at all has energized the town, his teammates and coaches.

"He's certainly come a long way," said Trion head coach Justin Brown, who, along with his assistants, spent that first night at the hospital hoping for the best. "For 60-plus hours he couldn't feel anything, and then the next week he was walking into our locker room. It's a real blessing to have him back with us."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296.

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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