Death of Derek Sheely shows football’s concussion problems extend beyond NFL


By now, you have probably heard about the NFL’s landmark settlement of what became known as The Concussion Lawsuit. This is, effectively, the NFL washing its hands of liability for the brain injuries suffered by so many of its former players. But if you think this issue is over, you should hear the story of Derek Sheely.

Sheely was a 22-year-old college fullback whom friends described as happy and generous, teammates knew as hard-working and diligent, and who can be seen on a video calling football “the greatest game invented on the face of the earth.” He was academic all-conference at a Division III school in Maryland and wanted to work for the government.

Instead, he died six days after collapsing during a practice two years ago. His parents dropped him off at Frostburg State one week; he was in a coma the next.

Sheely’s family hired the Kansas City-based Popham Law Firm to sue the NCAA, coaches at his school, and the helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports. Their allegations will break your heart and boil your blood.

“Derek’s life was sacrificed to a sport,” according to the lawsuit.

Sheely had been bleeding from his forehead after a drill in which his coaches encouraged players to lead with their helmets. Studies have shown that after an initial trauma, smaller impacts can do greater damage without proper precaution and recovery time from the first hit, and the NCAA has procedures in place to treat concussions.

According to the lawsuit, those procedures weren’t followed with Sheely, who was evaluated four times without a concussion test. He told coaches he “didn’t feel right” and had a headache. But a coach screamed to “stop your (complaining) and moaning and quit acting like a (wimp) and get back out there!”

Sheely collapsed soon after, and never regained consciousness. He died of what the lawsuit describes as “brain herniation, an acute subdural hematoma, and massive vascular engorgement.”

The Sheely family will tell their story to ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday. Spokespeople for Frostburg State, where Sheely was the starting fullback, and Schutt declined comment. Messages left with the NCAA were not returned.

If anything positive can come of this, let’s hope it emphasizes the scope of an issue that extends much closer to home than football’s highest level. In sheer volume, context, compensation and the level of care available, head injuries in football are a much bigger problem in college and below.

There were 4,500 plaintiffs in the lawsuit settled by the NFL. In the 2011-12 academic year, the NCAA had 450,000 student-athletes, including 70,000 football players. Compare that 1,696 men are on 53-man NFL rosters at any given point in a season, and there are 41 times more college players involved in potentially life-altering collisions under generally less supervision.

Concussions have received much attention in recent years, and that’s a good thing, but the light often shines on the NFL when by any reasonable measure there are far more head injuries suffered in lower levels.

The Sheely family’s cause was reinforced on Thursday, opening night for the college football season, when a national television audience saw Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews staggering on his feet and then vomiting after a hit that ended with the back of his helmet slamming against the turf. Matthews was back in the game moments later, even making a key fourth-down catch.

After the game, Matthews said he was suffering cramps, took in a lot of fluids to rehydrate, and was throwing up those fluids. He may very well have been regurgitating excess fluids, but he wasn’t out of the game long enough for trainers to perform mandated concussion tests.

These are different young men and different situations, but a lack of care in treating a concussion is what the Sheely family is blaming for Derek’s death.

There is no way to know exactly what happens in every practice at the hundreds of teams across all divisions (not to mention junior colleges, the NAIA and high schools) but it’s naïve to think Frostburg State is the only place this could happen.

The lawsuit alleges “utter incompetence, egregious misconduct, false hope and a reckless disregard for player health and safety” for Sheely’s death. The 66-page complaint describes at least four key points in which Sheely’s symptoms could’ve been diagnosed and quotes one of his teammates describing the practices as “out of control.”

In one scene, the players are going through something similar to the “Oklahoma drill,” only with a more dangerous twist. In Frostburg’s version, a fullback is told to block full-speed into a linebacker, who is not allowed to defend himself from the hit. The head coach is alleged to have ordered the players to tackle and lead with their helmets. Those who didn’t were cursed out and made to do the drill again.

After Sheely died, coaches at Frostburg changed the drill.

They gave the linebacker a blocking shield for protection.

The Sheely lawsuit seeks more than $1.5 million in damages, but in a recent interview with The Star, Popham lawyer Dirk Vandever said he thought the family would settle for the NCAA adopting what could be called “the Derek Sheely rule” with enforced guidelines aimed at preventing future tragedies.

“I truly hope and expect (those who hear Sheely’s story) will take up the fight either for Derek or for someone else,” Vandever says. “And there needs to be enforcement of the NCAA rule that’s already on the books (regarding treatment of concussions).”

Regardless of how the Sheely family’s lawsuit ends, this is an important reminder for the rest of us that the consequences of head injuries extend much further than the famous men we watch on Sundays.

Those men, at least, are well-compensated and have generally better access to medical attention. There are many more young men suffering many more head injuries away from the spotlight, and closer to home.