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Fields of Broken Dreams

Freak Death of Baseball Player is Fifth Fatality This School Year and Many Are Pondering the Sense of It All

May 08, 1997|DAVID WHARTON

HEATH TAYLOR HART HIGH: A Leap of Fate Pole vault: Two days before the final dual meet of the season, Heath Taylor attempted a routine pole vault in practice.

The junior at Hart High in Newhall sprinted down the runway and cleared the 10-foot bar, then something went terribly wrong. He came down near the back of the landing mat, skidded off and struck his head on asphalt.

Unconscious but still breathing, Taylor was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he died several hours later. The Los Angeles County coroner's office ruled that the April 29 death, from severe head trauma, was accidental.

But track and field experts have questioned an apparent gap in safety precautions at the scene.

The school's 20-by-22-foot landing mat exceeded standards set by the National Federation of State High School Assns. However, the federation also recommends that any "hard and unyielding surfaces" adjacent to the mat be covered with "2-inch dense foam or other suitable material."

"That's where the concern is," said Fred Mueller of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at University of North Carolina. "[Pole-vaulting fatalities] all happen the same way--the kid either misses the pit or bounces out of the pit and lands on a hard surface."

Pole vaulting accounted for nine of the 12 fatalities in high school track and field between 1982 and 1994, Mueller said. It also accounted for six permanent disabilities and five serious head and neck injuries.

Less than two months before Taylor's death, a 17-year-old Chicago Heights vaulter was killed when he overshot the pit and landed headfirst on the ground.

"That shouldn't happen at all," Mueller said. "People should take more precautions."

Not only is the event risky, it attracts young men who "love a wild ride," said Brian Springer, a former high school coach. "Fear is not even in their minds."

Taylor fit the mold. He was an avid snowboarder and was always learning new stunts on his skateboard. As a smallish sophomore, he made the football team "by playing with his heart," friends recalled at his funeral service Tuesday.

This year, Taylor devoted himself to vaulting, inching his way up to a personal best of 11 feet 6 and earning a spot as the second-best vaulter on the varsity squad.

"Heath cared about improving himself," track Coach Larry David said.

In the wake of Taylor's death, CIF officials are considering further safety precautions for vaulters, including the use of helmets.

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