Despite the efforts of a trainer on the scene, 16-year-old Scotty Lang died of an undiagnosed heart condition. The memory sticks with Nolan, now the head coach at Compton Centennial, every time a player gets hurt.
Even for trained personnel, deciding who should or should not return to action can be difficult. Cuts, bruises and pulled muscles are a part of football — if medics benched every player who felt pain, the field would quickly empty.
The key is distinguishing between serious injury and what merely hurts.
Players often lie about how they feel because they want to be in the game. When doctors told Mychael Tarr, a Venice High running back, that he could not return against Chaminade, he compared it to "telling someone that they can't see someone they love."
Fernando Gomez, the coach at Noli Indian, understands. As a player, he once argued his way back onto the field — and now has a permanent knot on his left wrist, the remnants of a fracture that did not properly heal.
"It hurt like hell," Gomez recalled, "but I wanted to play."
So medics must be forceful.
"What I say goes," explained Malia Reynolds, the trainer at Villa Park High. "Being hurt, you can still play. Being injured, you're coming out."
The job gets trickier when there is limited medical help, leaving coaches to make the call. At Animo Leadership, Hamilton lamented that each minute spent assessing Hartford was a minute diverted from the rest of the team and the game.
"I shouldn't have to step away to see how he's doing," Hamilton said. "It's unfair."
Other coaches feel caught between a rock and a hard place. They want their players to be safe, but they also need their best athletes on the field to win.
At Calvary Baptist, which cannot afford a trainer, the decision often falls to assistant Lincoln Dial, who studied some kinesiology in college. He says he errs on the side of caution, but worries that he is putting his team at a disadvantage.
"It's not that other schools are doing it wrong," Dial said. "It's just that when there's a doctor, he can look at it and know immediately, 'Hey, you're fine. You're not going to injure yourself any more.'
"I look at that and I think, 'You're done until I hear from a doctor, a parent, something.'"
The trainer's room at Harvard-Westlake — located just steps off the football field — has padded tables, an ice machine and an array of rehabilitation equipment. Clean towels are stacked on the counter.
At St. Paul High in Santa Fe Springs, a doctor and three trainers attend every game, carrying full medical kits and communicating by walkie-talkie between the field and locker room. A school administrator estimated the program spends more than $25,000 a year on medical supplies.
"Obviously, you've got to dig that money out of somewhere," Coach Marijon Ancich said.
Too often, administrators and coaches face limited resources. Coach Jim Lamb would like to hire a trainer at Bolsa Grande High in Garden Grove, but that would mean sacrificing the stipend used for a badly needed assistant, so he tapes ankles himself.
Coach Chris Klinger does the same at Lucerne Valley, where the school saves money by shutting off the air-conditioning in the classroom that doubles as his training room. The temperature reaches 95 degrees on some afternoons.
"Programs that have doctors volunteer their time are lucky programs," said Klinger's cousin, Jake, an assistant. "I don't know if we have a doctor in town. We have a dentist."
Volunteer physicians have become far less common over the past 20 years — they are either too busy trying to keep their practices afloat or scared away by potential malpractice suits, several doctors said.
The City Section tries to fill the gap by paying for 60 or so medics to work a portion of its games. Nonprofit groups such as Team HEAL and the West Coast Sports Medicine Foundation also provide sideline care for teams in need.
But even simple medical supplies can be a challenge.
At Compton Centennial, Nolan has to pay for tape out of his own pocket. When a player limped off the field during a recent game against Los Angeles Douglass High, trainer Amanda Rosette took extra care wrapping his ankle.
"I understand that we're working with a small budget," she said. "We don't have a lot of tape today."
The situation probably will not improve — not at Compton Centennial or schools like it — as the 2010 season proceeds through the final weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs.
There has been talk of tougher rules, such as requiring schools to hire physicians for every game, but that could mean cutting the sport on many campuses.
For now, the responsibility too often falls on lone medics and coaches who are hardly experts in sports medicine. They know that parents are counting on them to keep players safe.
"You just do what you have to do nowadays," Garfield Coach Lorenzo Hernandez said. "It's the economic hard times."
Times staff writers Baxter Holmes and Eric Sondheimer, and correspondent Mark Medina contributed to this report.