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, 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, 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.
GREG PAGE, 19, defensive end with Kentucky, suffered a spinal injury in practice on 8/22/67 and was paralyzed from the neck down, and died on 9/29/67. While doing a “pursuit drill” at half speed in shorts, shoulder pads and helmet, Page stumbled as the quarterback was shoved into him and snapped his neck. In 1966 he and Nate Northington had been the first black players recruited to the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Northington received the news of Page’s death from head coach Charlie Bradshaw on 9/30/67, the day Northington became the first black player to play in an SEC game. Northington suffered a dislocated shoulder in the game and, depressed and lonely over the loss of his roommate and comrade in breaking the color line, missed some classes and had his meal ticket pulled by the coaches, who had forced him to practice through excruciating pain, rather than having his shoulder surgically repaired. He left school and went home.–“SEC Integrated”, CBSSports.com 2/17/15, Sarah M. Kazadi. “UK’s Northington and Page: The friendship that changed the face of SEC football”, Kentucky.com 10/15/13, Mark Story, Lexington Herald-Reader.
ARTHUR AYERS, 58, running back and special teamer with Consumnes River College (CA), died in February 2015 from health issues related to paralysis he had suffered in a game on 9/18/76. He had just scored on a sweep and was the outside man on the kickoff team. Ayers, the Menlo College ball carrier, and 2 others all going at full speed collided together (the ball carrier sustained a separated shoulder and broken ribs), with Ayers left on his back, eyes open, legs and arms unable to move or feel anything due to a severed spinal cord. Doctors told his family that had he not been in such good physical condition, the injuries might have killed him on the field. His sister, Connie Ayers, said, “We were told Arthur might live 10 years…and we had him for another 38 ½, a real blessing.” Steve Kenyon, who was on that kickoff team, said, “Art was a very energetic, very upbeat, very positive guy.” Ayers graduated from Pacific Coast Bible College in Sacramento and worked as a counselor through his church in Fresno. He lived a productive life and never bemoaned his condition. Consumnes River College dropped football following the 1978 season due to low participation numbers, the Ayers injury dulling the football spirit. Members of the coaching staff, deeply affected by the paralysis, never coached again at any level. “He was a 49ers die-hard fan,” Connie Ayers said. “He’d have a 49ers blanket with him during games. I asked him why he still watched games and he said, ‘Because I love the game.’”—“A football injury took Arthur Ayers’ ability to walk, but not his ability to live a full life”, SacBee.com 2/28/15, Joe Davidson, Sacramento Bee.
ZACH SHAVER, 18, redshirt freshman defensive tackle with Tarleton State University (TX), died on 3/29/10 of a head injury sustained in a spring practice. He got tangled up with an offensive lineman and the 2 players fell over the back of the pile with the offensive lineman on top of Shaver, who hit his head on the turf and never recovered. The offensive lineman said Shaver fell limp in his arms. “It looked like an ordinary football play,” said Brad Keith, sports editor of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune. Shaver was airlifted to Fort Worth Hospital and never regained consciousness. In his 2 seasons on varsity at Rider HS (TX) they won 20 games and a pair of district championships, as Shaver earned first-team all-district and honorable mention all-state in his senior year. Rider teammate Eric Ward said of Shaver, “He was always laughing and being funny.” His high school coach, Scott Ponder, said, “He was a great kid, and I loved him dearly.”—“Former Rider Player dies as a result of practice accident”, TimesRecordNews.com 3/29/10, Nick Gholson.
PHILLIP WATKINS, 23, defensive back with De Anza College (CA), 2012, was shot and killed outside his fiancee’s home by police on 2/11/15. Described as distraught and depressed by his family, Watkins made a 911 call reporting a home invasion by a male armed with a knife. San Jose police spokeswoman Sgt. Heather Randol said Watkins stated he was locked in an upstairs bedroom with his children and requested help from police. Randol said Watkins was on the sidewalk in front of the home holding a knife with a 4-inch blade when 2 officers arrived, and ran at them in a threatening manner. Randol said Watkins refused the officers’ orders to stop and drop the knife, and continued to run toward them, prompting the shooting. Watkins was shot 9 times. The mother of his fiancée, Faye Buchanan, who also lives in the home and witnessed the shooting, described it as excessive, saying Watkins started “trotting” over to the officers when they fired. Buchanan’s daughter was also present. “We begged them to help him, not shoot him,” said Faye Buchanan, who questioned why the police didn’t try to use a stun gun, especially since she had called a suicide hotline earlier and was told by the operator police would be called in order to mobilize a suicide intervention. When asked if Watkins tried to bait the police into killing him, a phenomenon known as “suicide by cop,” Buchanan said she didn’t know. “I can’t speculate, but he wasn’t in his right mind when it took place.”—“San Jose cops kill man with knife”, SF Chronicle 2/13/15, Hamed Aleaziz & Vivian Ho. A picture within the article shows Watkins to be African American.
The following Northern California colleges and universities have dropped football: University of San Francisco (1952), Santa Clara (1993), Hayward State (1994–now Cal State East Bay), Pacific (1995), SF State (1995), Sonoma State (1996), St. Mary’s (2004), Menlo (2015).
KHIRY MADDOX, senior linebacker with Eastern Kentucky, suffered a career-ending stinger in a game on 10/18/14, which was his fourth injury of that type. A stinger, also known as a burner, is a spine injury characterized by stinging pain that travels down one arm, followed by numbness and weakness, and can cause partial paralysis in the arm. “I meet with the doctors, trainers and the coaches and they told me that my spinal cord was too close to my spinal column. That could be from birth. That could be from football. But, I was at high risk for catastrophic injury.” Faced with the possibility of paralysis or death, the former walk-on realized he had to walk away from the game. Respected by his teammates as a hard-worker, Maddox remained involved in team activities for the remainder of the season.—OVC FOOTBALL: “EKU senior Khiry Maddox forced to give up football due to injuries”, RichmondRegister.com 10/29/14, Nathan Hutchinson.
DEREK SHEELY, 22, senior fullback with Frostburg State (MD), died on 8/28/11 of a brain injury, six days after collapsing in practice after participating in repeated helmet-to-helmet contact in a variation of the “Oklahoma drill,” in which 2 players line up 3 yards apart and crash into each other at full-speed. This was done 30-40 times per drill, during Frostburg’s 2-a-day practices. A lawsuit filed by Sheely’s family against the NCAA, the helmet manufacturer Schutt, and his coaches claims that running backs coach Jamie Schumacher commanded players to lead with their helmet—“hat first.” If the players did not comply, it claims, Schumacher would berate them and call them a “bitch.” Four times over 3 days Sheely’s forehead was opened with a bleeding wound that was bandaged, and each time he was sent back into practice without a concussion test, the suit claims, despite the fact that he’d suffered a concussion the previous season. His mother, Kris, says that Sheely was involved in 13.5 hours of contact over the 3 days.—“Family Of Player Killed In Practice Sues NCAA, Coaches, Helmet Maker”, deadspin.com 8/23/13, Barry Petchesky.