Mike Dwyer

MIKE DWYER, 17, senior halfback with Olean Walsh HS, was hit hard by 2 players while running back a kickoff in a fall 1977 game and died the following Wednesday of a subdural hemorrhage and cerebral contusion. After the play he walked to the huddle and said to his teammate, “I don’t think I can make it,” and fell to his knees. Dwyer, who was 5’5’’ and 145 pounds, was called a sparkplug by his teammates. His coach, Ed McGuire, said, “Mike lives on in the squad.”—“When football is life and death”, BuffaloNews.com 10/8/13, Mary Jo Monnin.

Bret Smith

BRET SMITH, 17, senior fullback with Westfield HS (NY), collapsed after leaving the field in a game on 9/28/75 and died 3 days later of a brain aneurysm. He was operated on to relieve pressure on his brain. His teammate since midget football and quarterback with Westfield, Tim Smith (no relation) said, “He was basically dead when he collapsed on the field.” Robert Smith, Bret’s father, said his son had been complaining of headaches and may have been injured in a 9/19/75 game when he was hit simultaneously by 2 players. Smart and articulate, Smith was senior class president and team captain. Westfield played their next game 6 days after Smith’s death with his brother, Brian, in Bret’s place in the backfield. The game saw 12 fumbles and ended in 0-0 tie.—“When football is life and death”, BuffaloNews.com 10/8/13, Mary Jo Monnin.

Chris Canales

CHRIS CANALES, 31, senior defensive back with San Marcos Baptist Academy (TX), while making a touchdown-saving tackle in a game on 11/2/01 fractured his C5 and C6 vertebrae, which left him a quadriplegic. The running back tried to leap over Canales and his hip collided with the top of Canales’ helmet. He asked the emergency medical technicians what was wrong and they did not answer. “Once you try to get up and can’t move, you know something is wrong,” he said. His father, Eddie Canales, said, “When we got the X-Rays back, it was horrifying. His neck was stretched as far as it could be without being separated.” Chris Canales, who was all-conference and received 3 college scholarships to be a punter, was in ICU for 2 months and almost died twice. One year later he and his father attended the state championship game in the Alamodome and witnessed a spinal cord injury in the game. Chris said to Eddie, “Dad, we have to help him. I know what he’s going through. You know what his family is going to go through. We need to help him.” That was the inspiration behind Gridiron Heroes, a foundation that helps those with spinal cord injuries (ecanales07@yahoo.com). Chris can now feed himself, brush his teeth, comb his hair, and is determined to walk again. He does not blame football. His father gets hate mail because he still supports the game and said, “Gridiron Heroes has never been about deterring people from playing football.”—“Far from NFL’s bright lights, paralyzed players carry on”, USAtoday.com 9/11/07, Tim Dahlberg, AP Sports Columnist. “Spinal Cord injuries Are No Longer a Hidden Topic”, TexasMonthly.com 10/4/13, Joseph Misulonas.

Heat Stress Dangers

Between the years 2000 and 2007, twenty deaths that occurred during high school and collegiate football practice were attributed to heat stress.  From 1980 to 2009, there were 58 documented hyperthermia deaths of American-style football players in the United States.  Hyperthermia is elevated body temperature due to failed thermoregulation that occurs when a body produces or absorbs more heat than it dissipates. Extreme temperature elevation then becomes a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment to prevent disability or death.  When played in hot weather, football lends itself to these dangers because the protective equipment worn creates microclimates above the skin surface but beneath the uniform, reducing heat dissipation and generating the risk of heat exhaustion and exercise-induced hyperthermia.  It’s recommended that in hot weather practices players suit up in stages and only wear equipment appropriate to the practice activity.  For example, helmets can be removed for general fitness training when they are not needed for protection.  Also recommended are frequent cooling breaks in the shade with ice water and misting fans, and having players sit in cold tubs after practice may also reduce risk and accelerate recovery.–“The Dangers of Heat Stress for Athletes”, Stack.com 3/23/15, Mike Willey.

Gary Plummer

GARY PLUMMER, 55, linebacker with San Diego and San Francisco, 1986-97, was diagnosed with early onset dementia in November 2014. “Your helmet is a weapon, and it always has been,” he said. “I had a headache for 11 straight years.” Plummer was in denial about the trauma to his head and didn’t think he’d ever had a concussion, since he’d never been knocked out cold. He once stormed out of a panel discussion on concussions organized by agent Leigh Steinberg after yelling, “You guys are a joke.” He said he felt reassured by “being lied to by the NFL.” He worked for years as a 49ers radio analyst, but when he started working for the Pac-12 Network, he struggled with memory. “I couldn’t think fast.” While playing, Plummer, who also played 3 years in the USFL, believed that players who retired because of injury were weak.  He’s also suffered from depression, especially after the suicide of his good friend and former teammate Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May 2012 by shooting himself and was found to have CTE.—“Young 49er’s retirement kick-starts discussion about the dangers of football”, SF Chronicle 3/18/15, Ann Killion. “League of Denial”, Steve Fainaru & Mark Fainaru-Wada.

Kacey Strough

KACEY STROUGH, 19 (approximately), was 16 with Bedford HS (IA) junior varsity in September 2012 when he was hit repeatedly in the back of his head with footballs thrown at close range during practice while being bullied by teammates. He had migraines, then lost the use of his left arm and leg. Doctors discovered a blood clot near his brain stem and Strough was put into a medically induced coma, undergoing a 7-hour brain surgery. Strough had reported the incident to his coaches the day it happened. Strough’s family has filed a lawsuit in federal court against his former coach, Robert McCoy, claiming that his brain injuries were the result of in-team bullying and have left him permanently disabled. The suit claims McCoy, though he said he would look into the incident, failed to take proper action. The suit also claims Strough went to administrators multiple times to complain about bullying and was told they would look into the allegations, but nothing changed.—“Student coma leads to investigations by police, school officials”, KETV.com 11/6/12. “Iowa teen’s lawsuit against football coach alleges team bullying caused brain damage,” Sports.Yahoo.com 4/3/13, Cameron Smith.

Ryan Johanningmeier

RYAN JOHANNINGMEIER, 38, offensive lineman with Colorado, 1996-99, was found dead by his family in his Lakewood (CO) apartment on 3/9/15. Foul play is not suspected. The Jefferson County Coroner’s office completed an autopsy, but could not determine the cause of his death. His mother, Sandy Curfman, said her son had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. Toxicology tests will be performed. Johanningmeier had a short NFL career after signing with Atlanta as a free agent in 2000, but neck and back injuries ended his stay a year later without ever playing an NFL game. (His father, B.J. Johanningmeier, also played with Colorado and spent 3 years in the NFL with Green Bay and Denver.)  Ryan, who had played both sides of the ball at Centaurus HS (CO), had part of a herniated disc removed in 2000. “When one disc goes, it’s like dominoes,” his mother recalled. “Every single day he was consumed with pain.” After retiring from football he struggled with serious health issues resulting from his years playing football. His high school coach, Phil Bravo, said, “He was just off-the-scale intelligent. Just an incredible thinker. Just a bright, bright young man with a sense of humor that would knock your socks off.” “Football is what I do,” Johanningmeier once said. “It’s not who I am.”—“Ryan Johanningmeier, former Colorado lineman, dies at 38”, DenverPost.com 3/11/15, Daniel Petty.

Ryan Hoffman

RYAN HOFFMAN, 40, offensive lineman with North Carolina (UNC), graduated in 1998 and is now homeless and panhandling in Florida. His family believes he has brain damage from football that prevents him from functioning normally. 287 pounds in his playing days, he is now more than 100 pounds lighter, and has talked about abusing drugs and alcohol. His sister, Kira Soto, has tried for a long time to help him by providing a place to stay, coordinating medical appointments, and finding him jobs, which he has lost. Despite offers of help from former players, coaches, the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund (which normally assists only retired NFLers), and free medical assistance from UNC, Hoffman refuses to accept and remains hard to contact. Soto says he’s terrified of what doctors might find.—“Homeless Former U.N.C. Player Balks at Efforts to Help Him”, NY Times 3/11/15, Juliet Macur.

Rashidi Wheeler

RASHIDI WHEELER, 22, safety with Northwestern, collapsed in practice on 8/3/01 while trying to complete a rigorous set of timed wind sprints–a drill that violated NCAA rules for voluntary practices–and later died. Though Wheeler had asthma, it never kept him from participating in sports, and he had his inhaler with him during the practice. He struggled to catch his breath as he left the field and collapsed, and his breathing and pulse eventually stopped. He did not respond to CPR from the coaching staff or paramedics. Wheeler died an hour later at Evanston Hospital. His mother, Linda Will, said, “This is difficult for me. I just talked to my son last night.” Although the university later contended that Wheeler’s ingestion of ephedra-containing pills and drink mix played a role in his death, the Cook County coroner ruled Wheeler had died of exercise-induced bronchial asthma.—“Northwestern Player Dies at Practice”, NY Times 8/5/01.

Defensive Dangers

“The majority of catastrophic injuries occur while playing defensive football. In 2012, two players were on defense and one was in a weight lifting session. Since 1977, 228 players with permanent cervical cord injuries were on the defensive side of the ball and 55 were on the offensive side with 44 unknown. Defensive backs were involved with 34.6 percent of the permanent cervical cord injuries followed by member of the kick-off team at 9.2 percent and linebackers at 9.5 percent.”–“Defensive backs at greatest risk for serious head and neck injuries from football”,  AANS (American Association of Neurological Surgeons) 2012.