JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — Death certificates have empty spaces to be filled — even if death, like life, never fits easily into bureaucratic boxes. The death certificate of Damon Janes sketches a terrible story.
Usual Occupation: Student. Kind of Business or Industry: High School. Immediate Cause of Death: Blunt impact injury of head. Place of Injury: Football Field.
The nexus of high school football and death trespasses too often on the mythic ethos of Friday night lights. Janes was a workhorse junior running back for Westfield/Brocton, a combined team from two small schools in western New York. He died in a Buffalo hospital three days after taking multiple hits to his head in a game Sept. 13, 2013. He was 16.
“No one should die playing the game they love,” his mother told USA TODAY Sports.
Penny Gilbert and Dean Janes want to spare other parents their pain. That’s why they sat at a conference table in their attorneys’ office here recently, telling stories about their strong-willed son and his life and death.
“We don’t want to take away football,” Gilbert said. “We just want to make it safer. We don’t want Damon to be just a statistic.”
The statistics are damning: Janes is one of eight players last year whose deaths were directly related to high school football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. This season, five players have died of causes directly related to football, such as head and spine injuries.
Nine high school football players died last season of indirect causes, such as heatstroke. There have been nine more such deaths this season, seven from high school.
And yet for those same seasons, there have been no fatalities directly related to pro, semipro, college and youth football. Which raises the question: Why are high school football players dying at a time when players from other levels are not?
“We’re trying to wrap our minds around that,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at North Carolina and who also directs the catastrophic injury center’s traumatic injury division.