Tragedy on the gridiron

Published 12:36 am Wednesday, September 24, 2008

By Staff
Commentary by Kevin Travis, Sports Editor
You think they’re indestructible.
After all, they’re football players. They’re healthy. Heck, they’re teenagers.
But in the blink of an eye, a tragedy can put a game — A GAME — into proper perspective.
The death of Jaquan Waller, a junior running back at J.H. Rose High School, cruelly brought that to everyone’s attention in Greenville and beyond.
Waller, just 16 years old, was injured in practice on Wednesday. He was cleared to play in Friday’s game against Hoggard.
Waller was injured again in the game when he was hit while carrying the ball up the middle. He made it to the sideline under his own power, but collapsed once he got there.
Waller was taken to the hospital after the incident, and died Saturday after being taken off life support. He died as the result of a “closed head injury due to sequential impacts during a contact sport.”
Football is entertaining to watch, and a joy to cover. But coaches and players know how violent a game it can be, even though the players are protected by helmets and shoulder pads.
Sadly, Waller isn’t the only North Carolina high school football player who has died this year.
Matt Gfeller, just 15 years old and a football player at Reynolds High School, died from injuries suffered in a game in what officials determined was a “routine football play.” The force of a block to the chest, which possibly caused Gfeller’s head to whip backward, caused a key blood vessel to tear and his brain to swell.
Atlas Fraley, who played at Chapel Hill High School and was considered to be a top NCAA Division I football prospect, was found dead by his parents. He had called 911 complaining about being dehydrated earlier in the day.
On Saturday, two college football players were severely injured. Their playing days are likely over.
Gary Rogers, a quarterback at Washington State, suffered a broken bone in his spine after enduring a late hit in a game against Portland State.
Dante Love, a wide receiver at Ball State, also suffered a broken bone in his spine after being hit while playing against Indiana. After five hours of surgery, Love was able to have movement in his arms and legs.
Injuries are a part of the game, but it’s usually a sprained ankle or a blown-out knee.
However, they can be much more severe.
While covering a Bellevue Redmen football game several years ago, Bill McClain, an outstanding two-player, collided with an opponent and crumpled to the ground. McClain lay motionless for some time and had to be carted off the field.
It was one of the most heart-wrenching incidents I ever witnessed.
Luckily for McClain, he didn’t suffer any permanent damage. While he didn’t suit up again, it was great just to see McClain standing, and walking, on the sideline that next Friday night.
I’ve always cared about the student-athletes I’ve had the privilege of covering for the past 17 years.
I care more about Austin Thompson’s good-naturedness than about how far he can throw a football.
I care more about Dakuan Spencer’s sense of humor than about his impressive knack for catching a ball.
I care more about what the future holds for Darrius Murray than about how fast he can run.
Sure, winning is great. Bouncing back from a loss is fantastic.
But how do the J.H. Rose Rampants, the school, the community and, most importantly, his family, “bounce back” from their loss of Jaquan Waller?
Not everybody needs reminding, but it’s important to remember what’s really important.
Kevin Travis is the Sports Editor of the Washington Daily News. You may reach him at 940-4217, or by e-mail at