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Lawmakers Must Act Before More Prep Athletes Die

November 24, 2002|Kelli Colby | Kelli Colby's 17-year-old son, Matt, died last September after playing in a high school football game.

My 17-year-old son, Matt Colby, died last year doing the thing he enjoyed most, playing football for his high school. He was, and always will be, the love of my life. He was my best friend and biggest supporter and I learned more from him than I ever taught him. I thought raising him alone was hard, but living without him is much harder.

Some of the most painful moments of the past year: Going through the 2001 holidays without taking out the decorations we'd collected together over the years; May 29, the day that would have been his 18th birthday; graduation day; deciding which of his precious and prized possessions and collections to sell at garage sales, which to give to his friends and family members and which to store away in the "Matt's Life" box.

Matt died in late September 2001 of bleeding and swelling in the brain, probably after repeated blows to his head during football games he played for Costa Mesa High School, according to the Orange County coroner. He collapsed during a game and never regained consciousness.

My life is not the only one scarred by Matt's death. His grandfather will never again be able to take his only grandson fishing in the Sierras, something they did together every year. His coach, who was like a surrogate father, will live with the inner turmoil and pain that this has caused him.

These are only a few; there are hundreds of teenagers whose lives will forever be affected by the loss of a friend many had known since early childhood.

In California alone, four other families and communities were thrust into this same agonizing situation last year. All four had children who died while participating in high school athletic programs. And Andrew Castillo, a 16-year-old San Gabriel boy, has been in a coma since Oct. 4 in circumstances remarkably similar to Matt's. Andrew collapsed during a football game after complaining of a headache.

How long will we allow this to go on?

Recently, I spent a long evening reading the California Government Code, studying the Education Code and the Health and Welfare Code. I couldn't find any legislation specifically defining guidelines for injury prevention, treatment and return to play applicable to interscholastic sports.

In Section 35179 of the Education Code, school boards are given control of and responsibility for "all aspects of the interscholastic athletic policies, programs and activities in its district." It states that the board is to assure that all policies, programs and activities in its district are in compliance with state and federal law, but I couldn't find any state or federal laws addressing interscholastic sports injuries.

The Interagency School Safety Demonstration Act of 1985 covers school crime, vandalism, truancy and excessive absenteeism but doesn't mention sports safety.

In 1997 the Legislature passed Senate Bill 187, which mandates safe school planning at every school site. Education Code Section 35294.2 lists the areas that require safety programs under this bill. Again, no mention of sports safety.

The Office of the District Attorney, in partnership with the California Department of Education, published "Safe Schools: A Planning Guide for Action, 2002." Sports safety is absent from this publication as well.

Early childhood development is provided for quite comprehensively in the Health and Safety Code, even identifying multiple sources for funding. Why stop at 5 years old?

Last week a drill was conducted at Costa Mesa High School simulating a terrorist attack.

Hours have been devoted to the state exit exams, including opposing reports of their accuracy and overall value.

Don't get me wrong. I think preventing school crime, vandalism, truancy and disaster preparedness are worthy and necessary activities of our school boards and legislators. I'm having a hard time finding the rationale for virtually ignoring the issue of sports injury prevention and safety.

How many more young athletes have to die during high school sporting events before sports safety becomes an issue worthy of our legislators' and school boards' time and money? It is time that we show our teenagers that their safety is more important than their performance on the field.

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