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Aug. 14, 2000 -- No. 412

New study finds 18 football players died in 1999 season, eight paralyzed

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Six high school football players died from injuries suffered on the playing field in 1999, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.

Another 12 young men -- including 11 high school players and one playing in a sandlot game -- also died, but their deaths came from heart failure and other conditions tied to exertion, not football directly.

"All six direct fatalities resulted from injuries to the brain," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of exercise and sport science at UNC-CH. "We found two heatstroke deaths in 1999 and 13 over the past five years. These deaths make no sense since proper precautions probably would have prevented them."

As chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee on Football Injuries, Mueller directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at UNC-CH. Each year, the center produces reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.

Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.

Seven high school boys and one college player were paralyzed last year, Mueller said. For the first time, a girl playing school football was paralyzed, but officials at O.L. Slaton Junior High in Lubbock, Texas, said she has mostly recovered from the injury. The boy who tackled her was 40 pounds heavier than she was.

Last year, 708 U.S. girls played football on boys’ school teams, the UNC-CH professor said.

"Coaches need to remind players to keep the head out of football," Mueller said. "No player should make first contact with his head when blocking and tackling."

During steamy weather, shorter practices and non-contact drills without helmets also help reduce accidents and prevent heatstroke, he said. Coaches should let players drink as much water as they want and announce regular cooling-off breaks.

Mueller attributed the drop in deaths directly caused by football to rule changes adopted in 1976 that prohibited using the head as the first point of contact during blocking and tackling. In 1968, 36 young men died after injuries in practices or games.

In 1970, eight players died from heatstroke. Before 1955, no deaths from becoming overheated were recorded among football players. Mueller said the reason may be that few schools and homes had air conditioning before then, and boys and young men likely were better able to stand high temperatures.

Parents should make sure that youngsters who want to play football have a physical examination and that their coaches teach safe playing techniques, the UNC-CH professor said. They also should ask if insurance and medical assistance are available in case of injuries.

The annual survey of football deaths and injuries began at Yale University in 1931, moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1965.

Over the past 70 years, 616 high school and 80 college players have died as a direct result of injuries suffered on the playing field.

The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor it.

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Note: Mueller can be reached at (919) 962-5171 (w) or 929-5097 (h) for details.

Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.