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JUST PREPS

Athlete Safety Goes Under Microscope

Preps: Though it hasn't yet been linked to the game, the death of Reseda football player has heightened awareness of risk.

September 19, 1996|STEVE HENSON and ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With their helmets, pads and designer accessories, high school football players are outfitted like modern gladiators. Yet they remain alarmingly vulnerable.

When a Reseda High player died in his sleep last Friday the morning after a taxing season opener, that much was underscored.

Eric Hoggatt, a running back, defensive back and kick returner, complained of dizziness and numbness in his legs and fingers during the game. Hoggatt was benched by a team physician late in a 41-0 loss against Chatsworth, but the player's family says it was never told of his symptoms.

The cause of Hoggatt's death has not been tied to the football game, and details will not be known until a coroner's report is released, probably next month. But circumstances of the tragedy have raised questions and concerns about the safety of young athletes, especially those in contact sports.

"It is extremely rare to have an incident like this, but parents have known for decades that football is a dangerous sport," said Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Playing football is a decision the parent and student should make together."

In California, high school football players are required to pass a physical examination before the season. Also, physicians are present at most games, helmets must meet national safety standards and coaches and referees are trained to recognize danger signs.

But preemptive measures don't always succeed.

Nationally last year, four high school players died from head-related injuries and five died from heatstroke, the most football fatalities since 1988.

At Southern California high schools, there have been two football-related deaths in seven years. Sergio Echevarria, a San Fernando High senior, collapsed after a preseason conditioning practice in 1992 and died two days later from heatstroke. Kiet Le, a Westminster La Quinta High sophomore, collapsed during a junior varsity game in 1989 and died after undergoing brain surgery.

Victoria Osollo, whose son, Ben Kaminsky, plays center for Reseda, said Hoggatt's death has prompted her to question procedures regarding the treatment and medical follow-up of injured players.

"It brought up a lot of concerns," Osollo said. "I definitely think [the family] should have been contacted."

Sideline physicians face the daunting task of making instantaneous decisions during the heat of a game.

"Two things scare the pants off of us," said Mel Hayashi, for 23 years the team physician for Newbury Park High. "One is head injuries, and the other is heart arrhythmia."

Numbness and dizziness indicate injury to the head or spinal cord, said Sanbo Sakaguchi, a general surgeon and the Mission Hills Alemany High team physician of 30 years.

"If [a player] comes out and complains of severe dizziness, you know it is a head injury," Sakaguchi said. "He doesn't play any more. It's pretty clear cut."

If Hoggatt had a preexisting health problem, it didn't show up during his physical, according to Reseda Athletic Director Norman Weiler.

"Everything was in perfect order," Weiler said.

The L.A. Unified School District, of which Reseda High is a member, issues a standardized form to each player, who must have it signed by a physician. All of Reseda's players went to their own physicians because examinations were not available at school, Weiler said.

Among other tests, players are given a cardiac examination, in which their pulse is taken while resting and after doing 25 one-legged hops. Players are also checked for any abnormalities of the internal organs, nervous system and musculoskeletal system, including the spine.

Medical availability varies from school to school.

At San Clemente High, administrators make physicians available on campus before each season of sport--fall, winter and spring. Athletes can also choose to see their family doctor.

At Lancaster Paraclete, a small Catholic school, the thoroughness of the physical is left to the discretion of the doctor, Athletic Director Margaret Neill said.

Parents and athletes in all sports at Newhall Hart High are required to sign a waiver acknowledging that "serious, catastrophic, or fatal injury may result from athletic participation."

But Mike Herrington, athletic director and coach of the successful Hart football team, acknowledged that the waiver may not protect the school or its employees from liability.

"You know, you can get sued for anything," Herrington said. "[The waiver] might not hold up in courts at all, but who knows? We want to make parents aware of the situation."

Some L.A. Unified School District schools distribute letters warning families of the risks of interscholastic athletics, but parents are not required to sign and return them.

"The best thing for parents to tell their kids is that if they are in an athletic situation, practice or game, there is the chance of injury," said Barbara Fiege, City Section athletic director.

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