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Family of Santa Fe football player files suit over severe concussion

October 5, 2018

The headaches came steadily, every day for three months.

Two years after he cracked helmets with a fellow player during a routine scrimmage, the 17-year-old former lineman still gets migraines, some so intense he can’t function without sunglasses indoors. His doctors still haven’t cleared him for golf, let alone football. He’s abandoned hope of playing college ball.

To Donna and Troy Yarbrough, their son will never be the same.

The Yarbroughs have now filed a pioneering civil rights lawsuit against the Santa Fe Independent School District that argues children have a fundamental right to be protected from concussions and potential brain damage from contact sports.

It’s among the first concussion lawsuits in Texas — and a growing number of claims nationwide — to draw attention to the devastating consequences of head injuries among tens of thousands of young athletes. Repeated concussions, especially those from helmet-to-helmet contact, have been linked to degenerative Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE in more than 100 NFL players, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

The suit says the youth, identified as C.Y. in court documents, had blurred vision and vomiting and was diagnosed with a severe concussion and cervical sprain after a football practice his sophomore year. In another twist of fate, the teen later sustained gunshot wounds in May during a massacre on the Santa Fe High School campus.

Patti Hanssard, a district spokesperson, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said students’ health and safety are priorities for Santa Fe ISD.

His parents told the Houston Chronicle they hope the lawsuit will draw attention to the fallout from the gridiron devotion that pervades small Texas towns, where hard-driving coaches expect young players to toughen up and play through their pain.

“If you’re not tough enough, you’re ridiculed and you suffer the consequences,” said the family’s attorney, Sherry Chandler, of Houston. “It is a culture of win at all costs.”

Coaches are expected to enforce division rules that ban certain forms of contact, but that isn’t always their top priority, said her husband and co-counsel, Lewis Chandler.

“It’s a systemic problem at Santa Fe High school,” Lewis Chandler said. “Our goal is not to dim ‘Friday Night Lights’ but to put a spotlight on safety.”

In Texas, which has more football programs than any other state, the push toward prevention puts the onus on adults to teach players to avoid injuries and to report them, said Houston lawyer Eugene Egdorf, who is not connected to the lawsuit but whose firm specializes in concussion and head trauma litigation.

“You have a culture that leads to less reporting of concussions, because you have kids who don’t want to come out of games when they’re injured,” Egdorf said. “Nobody wants to risk losing their spot.”

Devoted to the sport

C.Y. figured by senior year he’d be walking the halls in a letterman jacket. And then he’d play college ball.

Very few defenders could get past the agile offensive tackle on the junior varsity squad. That was true the morning of Sept. 21, 2016 when the Santa Fe Indians’ JV offense scrimmaged against the varsity defense. By then, the team was running regular two-a-day drills.

“From my understanding he was doing very good against the varsity guy,” his father said, “and [the coaches] kept saying, ‘Run it again. Run it again.’”

C.Y. texted his mother after practice that he had a terrible headache. He sat out the afternoon practice. Then came the dizziness, vomiting and drastic mood swings. He couldn’t balance or concentrate.

A doctor at the Concussion Center at Houston Methodist Clear Lake Hospital said it was a severe concussion, according to his parents. His symptoms indicated the teen had sustained at least one prior concussion that had gone untended. His grades plummeted. He could no longer build things in his favorite video game, Minecraft.

The Yarbroughs’ only child had played basketball, soccer, T-ball and mixed martial arts, but he loved football from the time he was a “little bitty” kid, his mother said. He could rattle off the lineups for every professional team and spent entire days with his pals at a local basketball court.

C.Y. made the football All-Stars in the Pop Warner league, and suited up without fail from fifth grade on.

“He was disciplined,” his mother said. “He would do whatever they wanted him to do and he never gave up.”

Today, his parents say he’s a different kid. Irritable and gloomy.

He can’t watch the Santa Fe boys’ football games or the showdowns on TV anymore since he was benched indefinitely.

His mother and father — a UPS supervisor and petrochemical equipment manager — keep an eye out for seizures when he gets headaches. They worry that he could suffer permanent brain deterioration.

“You don’t know about CTE,” Troy Yarbrough said. “You hear about all these professional athletes committing suicide.”

Thousands of concussions

Concussion lawsuits brought by families of high school athletes date back to 1993, according to a report by the American Association for Justice.

They’ve surfaced in at least 13 states, with a handful of cases ending in monetary settlements, including a $7.1 million negligence award for a San Diego player whose coach let him return to the field following a concussion. Another California player won $4.4 million in a settlement of a case in which he alleged his coach ignored his head injury and put him in to play. And a district settled for $1 million in the case of an Iowa player involving allegations that a school nurse failed to let the boy’s guardian know about a possible concussion.

A Pennsylvania class-action case, filed by a variety of students injured in different sports, claims the state’s interscholastic sports association failed to protect athletes to prevent and address concussions. But a similar lawsuit against a state athletic association in Illinois was dismissed in 2015 after the judge ruled that altering significant rules in sports is the job of the legislative branch rather than the judiciary.

The Yarbroughs’ lawsuit against Santa Fe, its board, superintendent and several coaches takes a different tack than many of the lawsuits around the country by alleging civil rights violations.

It’s an approach that could help the suit get around the immunity for governmental entities that often impedes negligence claims, said Egdorf, the Houston attorney, who has represented a player in a collegiate concussion case in Texas.

“It’s a unique strategy, and I give them credit for coming up with a way around sovereign immunity,” he said. “I just don’t know that this will apply.”

The recent uptick in concussion lawsuits follows a rise in concussions across the general population, particularly among adolescents.

An estimated 15 percent of high school students last year experienced at least one concussion and 6 percent had at least two, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2012 student found that more than 300,000 children 19 and under saw physicians for sports-related concussions or traumatic brain injuries.

A study by the Program for Injury Prevention Education & Research at the University of Colorado Denver found concussions were the most frequent sports injury for high school athletes, by a wide margin, during the 2016-2017 school year. In addition, studies at Wake Forest and Boston University have also discovered depleted cognitive functioning in adult athletes who began playing football before age 12.

In recent years, Texas high schools have beefed up prevention with programs that follow NCAA rules derived from NFL protocols, according to the University Interscholastic League. The UIL, which sets rules for the state’s public schools, requires that players be told not to lead with the crown of their helmets or make contact with other players’ heads during games.

What goes on in practice, however, is the coaches’ and trainers’ purview. School officials are expected to apply best practices for tackling, and state law requires coaches to attend two hours of training every two years about the danger of concussions, said Jamey Harrison, the UIL deputy executive director.

Harrison said schools can opt to give players a cognitive test to measure a player’s functioning as a baseline for comparison in case of injury. In addition, all districts are required to have a “return to play” protocol.

‘Put ‘em in golf’

Beyond his concerns for his son’s health, Troy Yarbrough said he is most distressed by how the Santa Fe coaches handled his son’s concussion.

“I grew up playing football — the coach was like a father figure,” he said. “When they found out he couldn’t play they never called, they never visited.”

It was the opposite of the outpouring the family experienced when their son was severely injured in the mass shooting. The tragedy prompted a visit to the family home from Houston Texans icon J.J. Watt and a rare night’s sleep for the teen in those early days, the boy’s mother said.

And it has this one-time football family rethinking their devotion to the game.

“I’d tell people, ‘Don’t put ’em in football, put ’em in golf,’ ” the father said.

Donna Yarbrough, half-joking, said that after years of being a sports mom she now wants to cover her son in bubble wrap.

“Everyone needs to be more aware about concussions,” she said. “I want awareness, safety. I don’t want other kids to get hurt. We would never want another kid to go through this. ”

Staff writers David Barron and Shelby Webb contributed to this report.

gabrielle.banks@chron.com

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