Mother Blames College Football Coaches & NCAA for Son's Death
ROCKVILLE, Md. (CN) - A college football player died of brain injuries caused by his coaches' ill-advised and abusive "gladiatorial" high-speed contact drills, his mother claims in a lawsuit against the NCAA and a helmet maker.
Kristen Sheely sued the NCAA, Kranos Corp. dba Schutt Sports, and two coaches and an athletic trainer at Frostburg State University, in Montgomery County Court.
Her son, Derek Sheely, 22, was a two-time all-conference senior at Frostburg State, in Maryland, when he died on Aug. 22, 2011.
Defendants include head football coach Thomas Rogish, assistant football coach Jamie Schumacher, and assistant trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr. Frostburg State itself is not a party to the lawsuit.
Sheely claims her son was wearing an improperly fitted Schutt helmet when Frostburg State started two-a-day preseason practices, on Aug. 19, 2011.
A Schutt representative told university administrators that the helmet could "prevent head injuries," according to the lawsuit.
But Sheely claims her son and his teammates were "deceived by Schutt Sports." She claims that Schutt failed to adequately test the helmet, which did not minimize or reduce significant impacts.
"Strapped with a new sense of false security, Derek reasonably believed that his new armor could prevent head injuries," his mother says in the complaint.
Derek Sheely was a fullback. His mother claims in the lawsuit that "Preseason practices at Frostburg served more as a gladiatorial thrill for the coaches than learning sessions for the players. Practice involved virtually unlimited, full-contact, helmet-to-helmet collisions. One of Derek's teammates described the demeanor of the practices leading up to Derek's fatal injury as completely 'out of control.' Within a three-and-a-half-day period, Derek and his teammates were exposed to more than 13 hours of full-contract drills - significantly increasing the risk of concussions and repetitive head trauma."
The complaint continues: "On the morning of August 19, 2011, defendant Schumacher instructed the fullbacks and tailbacks to engage in a drill that has been criticized by certain National Football League teams and other leagues as extremely dangerous, intolerable and meaningless.
"The drill is similar to the so-called 'Oklahoma Drill' - but even more dangerous. The fullback and tailback line up behind the quarterback. A linebacker stands approximately six-ten yards away from the fullback. The linebacker is not allowed to defend himself; instead he is required to stand upright and 'act like a dummy.' The quarterback hands the ball off to the tailback, and the fullback and the linebacker are required to smash into each other at full speed (the 'Drill'). If the linebacker attempts to defend himself, or the fullback does not run full speed into the linebacker, defendant Schumacher would require the players to repeat the drill.
"The Drill continues for approximately 15 minutes with very little, and at times, no rest. During the course of the drill, each player takes approximately 30-40 sub-concussive, or concussive, blows to the head.
"The Drill had a reputation among the players as being 'ridiculously dangerous.' Players warned each other about the Drill, and, in fact players quit the team due to its propensity to cause injuries.
"Prior to the 2011 season, the coaches knew that the Drill increased the risks of concussions. At least one player during the 2010 season suffered a concussion while performing the Drill.
"What is more, a few days before Derek's fatal blow, two of Derek's teammates suffered concussions during the Drill. Despite the significant damage and excessive amount of blows the players were taking, the defendants, including the NCAA, coaches and athletic trainers allowed, condoned and/or demanded that the Drill continue without modification."
Derek's mother claims that during drills defendant Schumacher, the assistant coach, "berated and cursed" at players that did not follow his orders, which included leading with their heads during tackles.
The complaint states: "Significantly increasing the risks of football, defendant Schumacher demanded that the players 'lead with your head' and use your 'hat first.' If a player did not perform the Drill as defendant Schumacher ordered, the players, including Derek, would be berated and cursed at by Defendant Schumacher."
Derek's mom claims that by 1976 the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations regulations had instituted rules "prohibiting initial contact with the head."
"Despite this elementary rule, Schumacher ordered the players to tackle and/or lead with their head. One of Derek's teammates said he was 'shocked' when he heard defendant Schumacher's order, but he said you were required to obey his order otherwise he would lash out and call players a 'b****,'" according to the complaint. (Bowdlerization in complaint.)
On Aug. 20, 2011, while doing the "dangerous" Oklahoma-style drill, Derek's forehead began bleeding profusely, his mother says.
She claims defendant Sweitzer, the football team's primary athletic trainer, examined Derek and allowed him to return to practice.
Sweitzer did not perform a concussion test, Kristen Sheely says. She claims that though a large bruise appeared on Derek's head, no coaches or trainers inquired about the injury.
Derek was doing full-contract drills the next day, Aug., 21, when his head began bleeding again, his mother says. She claims that Sweitzer again applied a bandage and allowed Derek to return to practice.
However, "At lunch, Derek's teammates observed a noticeable difference in his behavior. Instead of being social and jovial, Derek appeared to 'not be himself,'" the complaint states.
Derek's head bled again during afternoon practice, and Sweitzer again failed to perform a concussion test, Kristen Sheely says.
The following day, Aug. 22, Schumacher ordered Derek to participate in full-contact drills, though Derek said he "didn't feel right" and had a headache, according to the complaint.
It continues: "With defendant Rogish, and on information and belief other members of the coaching staff, standing right next to defendant Schumacher and thus clearly hearing Derek's disclosure, defendant Schumacher yelled, 'Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there, Sheely!'
"Having the last clear chance to remove Derek from play, the coaches willfully ignored and recklessly disregarded Derek's plea for help and forced him to return to play.
"Derek resumed contact and the players began the 7-on-7 drill. This is basically a game-like situation where players engage in all-out, full contact. After completing a series of plays, Derek was involved in a collision with a defensive back. Though the collision was relatively unremarkable, it was of sufficient force to trigger second-impact syndrome.
"Derek walked back to the sidelines in a lucid state, and within a few minutes following the collision, Derek collapsed and never regained consciousness.
"Derek's final collision caused brain herniation, an acute subdural hematoma, and massive vascular engorgement.
"Derek was airlifted to the hospital where the doctors performed an emergency craniectomy. Though Derek remained comatose for six days, he continued to suffer from conscious pain. Despite all medical efforts, Derek died on August 28, 2011, due to complications from massive brain swelling caused by second-impact syndrome."
Frostburg State, an NCAA Division III program, is in western Maryland.
"Utter incompetence, egregious misconduct, false hope and a reckless disregard for player health and safety lead to the tragic death of Derek Shelby," his mother says.
"He was a talented athlete with a kindred spirit, jovial attitude and had aspiration to work for the Central Intelligence Agency."
Sheely seeks $75,000 in compensatory damages and punitive damages for wrongful death, product liability and negligent hiring.
She is represented by Stephen Nolan, of Baltimore.