A Germantown mother who lost her son is working to raise awareness about the seriousness of head injuries in contact sports like football.
Kristen Sheely’s son Derek sustained a head injury during football practice at Frostburg State University in August 2011. Later, doctors determined he had received a previous undocumented head injury.
He died one week later at age 22.
“We’ve been working ever since to try and raise awareness of concussions,” Sheely said, referring to her and her husband’s nonprofit organization, the Derek Sheely Foundation. “We knew we had to do something to help others.”
Maryland recently passed new regulations requiring that athletic coaches receive training to identify serious head injuries, but Sheely doesn’t think the state is doing enough. And she’s not the only one.
Tom Hearn, a Montgomery County parent whose son sustained a concussion, recently told the Baltimore Sun he thinks high schools should limit contact practices and require parents and athletes to be educated about the dangers of concussions.
Sheely wrote a letter to the state board of education in July and proposed several measures to increase the safety of student athletes, including reducing the number of contact practices per week.
Check out the full PDF of Sheely's letter above.
As a former junior varsity field hockey coach in Montgomery County for two seasons, Sheely was herself required to take concussion training.
“I can confirm that though it is well-intended, the concussion training is not sufficient,” she wrote in the letter.
According to Jim Tapley, the athletic director for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, coaches are required to take a 20-minute online concussion training class each year.
Tapley, who formerly served as athletic director for 10 years at Northwest High School, where Sheely’s children attended, says the county has come a long way in being informed about head injuries.
“I played football in the county in the 1970s, and if you got knocked out, if the coaches could wake you up and get you up, they would put you back in the game,” he said.
However, he questioned whether the strides the county has made are enough.
“I know that we’re doing what’s required, and coaches are very cognizant today of the potential risks,” Tapley said.
Sheely emphasized that she and her husband are not trying to change the way football is played—her son would never have wanted that.
“We don’t want to propose anything drastic or expensive,” she said. “We just want to improve safety and keep everything fair.”
They recently created concussion awareness kits with materials—from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention—like wristbands, pens and magnets to serve as a reminder of the dangers of brain injuries, and they are trying to get them out to students before the fall football season begins.
Sheely says she hopes to reach young athletes and help remove the stigma that reporting concussions may cost them their spot on the team.
“We hope the board just considers the big picture and puts the athletes first,” she said. “If this could happen to Derek, it could happen to anyone.”