In Play with Tom Markowski


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Parents, professional athletes team to create awareness as football-related injuries and deaths continue in high school sports

By: Tom Markowski, October 26, 2015, 11:37 am


Farmington Hills – Quarterback Anthony Giovanni of Farmington Hills Harrison said he’ll likely wear the EvoShield every time he’s on the field.

His decision to do so nearly came a little late.

On Oct. 13 Giovanni was one of 85 football players in Harrison’s program, which includes all three levels, to receive, free of charge, the EvoShield, a lightweight protective device a player wears inside a shirt around his or her ribs that’s designed to prevent serious internal injuries.

“It was in the first game,” Giovanni said. “I got hit in the back of the ribs. It wasn’t a bad injury but I did have to come out.”

Giovanni was blessed. Many like him are on the receiving end of hard-hitting tackles by players who weigh 30, 60 or 90 pounds more. Whether players lead with their helmet or should pads, a blow to the rib cage or slightly below can cause serious injury.

Others, like Taylor Haugen and Evan Murray, weren’t as fortunate.

Haugen died on Aug. 30, 2008. He was a 15-year-old sophomore receiver on the junior varsity team at Niceville (FL) High. Haugen went up to make a catch and was hit by two defensive players. Moments later he collapsed on the sidelines. Later that day died from severe internal injuries to his liver.

Two years later, after learning about two similar injuries near Niceville, Bryan and Kathy Haugen, Taylor’s parents, started the Taylor Haugen Foundation Youth Equipment for Sports Safety program, or YESS.

The Haugens partnered with EvoShield founders in 2010 to help in creating awareness. A number of professional athletes, including Josh Hamilton, who’s now with the Texas Rangers, donned EvoShield protective rib pads that first year. The company also makes elbow and wrist guards, and heart protectors.

The Haugens have been on the trail ever since doing their part in informing coaches, players and administrators across the country of possible dangers of players being hit in the rib cage area and how to prevent it.

“It’s a purpose,” Bryan Haugen said. “We felt we were being called. We were in a position. What are you going to do about it? It’s emotional for us to be (at Harrison). It’s difficult. But we get gratification.

Haugen told a story of a player, a ball carrier, in Florida who was pushed out of bounds and into the players’ bench. The player hit the side of the bench in his rib area and fell. The crowd gasped thinking the worst but Haugen said the player was wearing the EvoShield and immediately got up, relatively unscathed.

This football season seven high school students died from football-related deaths. Andre Smith, 17, of Chicago Bogan High School was the most recent football play to die. Last Thursday Smith was hit during the last play of the game. He collapsed shortly after being hit and was taken to hospital. Smith died early Friday. Autopsy results were released on Saturday and they showed Smith died from a blunt-force head injury.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research database the leading cause of death isn’t football-related trauma, but sudden cardiac arrest.

Murray was a quarterback at Warren Hills High in New Jersey when suffered a lacerated or ruptured spleen and died on the field from internal bleeding. Kenny Bui, a receiver and defensive back from Evergreen High (WA), suffered a blow to the head and later died from what was described as traumatic brain injury.

Both were 17-year-old seniors.

On Sept. 4 Tyrell Cameron, 16, of Franklin Parish (LA) died from injuries suffered while making a tackle on a punt return. Autopsy results revealed that Cameron suffered a broken neck. This led to internal bleeding causing death.

Much publicity has been shed on concussions and brain injuries in athletics but the Haugens and others say not enough attention has been given to internal injuries.

Bryan Haugen said they’ve been to 12 high schools this year and last year they were able to give out 1,500 packets. Cost can be an issue and, in addition to creating awareness, he and his wife are constantly trying to solicit donations.

Harrison graduate, former Michigan State star and current Arizona Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton is a big proponent of EvoShield and became involved with the Haugens’ crusade in August. Stanton was at Harrison with the Haugens and one of EvoShield’s co-founders, Stan Payne, to help distribute the 85 packets the Harrison players.

Stanton and the foundation teamed to cover the cost, which is $89.99 retail. Payne said that’s high end sticker price. Similar protective shields can be purchased for $60.

“I wanted to get involved,” Stanton said. “You ask yourself, how can we protect kids? I personally wear one. It’s phenomenal. (Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew) Stafford was the first to wear it. I started wearing it and I believe in it. I refuse to wear anything else. It’s like a mouth guard for the body.”

It’s not coincidental Stafford was one of the first. EvoShield is based in Athens, Ga., and Stafford played at Georgia, as did Payne. Payne’s sport was baseball and he was good, too, having been selected by the Oakland A’s in Baseball’s Amateur Draft in 1992.

Payne estimates that 240 major league players wear EvoShield gear. He said his company supplies the NFL with their thigh guards and that the number of NFL players who use the product exceed those in baseball. Many college athletes wear them as well.

“Our mission is to protect athletes and keep them on the field,” Payne said. “The shield is held in place (by the shirt) and is lightweight. It doesn’t impede performance. It’s like a second skin. It doesn’t matter how big or how small the players are. It forms to your body.”

Harrison coach John Herrington was more than pleased to have his players equipped with the protective gear. He, like many coaches, say that serious injuries have caused many students not to play football and select a sport that they believe is less harmful.

“Anything that protects the boys is good,” Herrington said. “What I like about this is it’s form fitting. The others hooked to the shoulder pads and were loose.

“We’re trying to make everything safer. It’s a great game. Some parents say it isn’t a good game. The emphasis on concussions is good. The more emphasis you can put on safety will make people see the sport differently.”