Even from the stands, Linda Young could tell something was wrong. Her son David, a senior linebacker for Adna High School, near Chehalis, Washington, had just fallen to his knees on the sideline after delivering a vicious hit. By the time she ran down to the field to check on him, he’d made it to the bench but was looking directly at the ground. “Mom,” he said, tears filling his eyes. “I can’t lift my head.” Hours later, David was at Harborview, where doctors discovered he had broken two vertebrae.
That was October 2, 2015. That same night, Kenney Bui, a 17-year-old from White Center, suffered a concussion during an Evergreen High School football game that led to his death three days later. On their own, either story would have given the parents of any student athlete pause. But together—amid a media blitz for Will Smith’s latest Oscar-bait drama, Concussion—they were grist for the ongoing conversation about the wisdom of letting kids butt heads for sport. “Evergreen senior’s death renews football-safety debate,” read the Seattle Times headline. Even the UK’s Guardian newspaper weighed in, claiming that Bui’s death “represents an alarming trend.”
Yet Dr. Stanley Herring, of the UW Medicine Sports Health and Safety Institute, points out that focusing exclusively on fears about head trauma misses the point. “Regardless of the sport, some kids will become concussed,” he says. “Complete prevention is probably not possible.”
Identifying head trauma and not rushing injured kids—whose brains heal more slowly than adults’—back on to the field is the key, according to Herring. But just as important is resisting the urge to pull them out of sports altogether. “There is an inactivity epidemic among young people,” he says. “And the lifelong consequences—diabetes, heart disease, hypertension—are brutal.”
David Young’s story has a happy ending. Three months after breaking his neck, he was wrestling with his younger brother again. And though he’s done with football, he’s not taking it easy. This summer he went to lineman school in Oregon, where he learned to climb utility poles and work with thousands of volts of electricity. “He’s making progress,” Linda says. “He’s going to make something out of himself.”