The parents of a Frostburg State University football player who died after a second concussion accused coaches at the Maryland school of conducting “gladiatorial” high-speed drills that caused players to suffer repeated blows to the head.
A wrongful-death lawsuit charges that 22-year-old Derek Sheely, of Germantown, returned to the field despite bleeding from his forehead during four consecutive practice sessions in August 2011. He was never checked for a concussion or to see if his helmet was properly fitted, the lawsuit said.
“One of Derek’s teammates described the demeanor of the practices leading up to Derek’s fatal injury as completely ‘out of control,'” the lawsuit said. “What is more, the word ‘concussion’ is not stated a single time in Frostburg’s team policies. Thus, the coaches treated all injuries — brain injuries and ankle sprains — the same: You were expected to play through them.”
The lawsuit, filed last week in Maryland, names head coach Thomas Rogish, helmet-maker Schutt Sports, the NCAA and others as defendants.
The NCAA said it was saddened by Sheely’s death, “and continues to extend our sympathies to the family. Nonetheless, we disagree with the assertions and allegations made against the NCAA.” The school did not immediately comment. A message was left with the helmet maker, which has operations in Easton, Pa. and Illinois.
The lawsuit called the full-speed drills during the Division III school’s preseason camp “a gladiatorial thrill for the coaches.”
The two-a-day practices involved nearly nonstop, head-to-head collisions, especially for fullbacks like Sheely, who had to “smash into” linebackers at full speed during the so-called “Oklahoma Drill,” causing dozens of concussive or subconcussive blows, the lawsuit said. Two other players had suffered concussion during camp, and team officials knew or should have known that Sheely had suffered a concussion the prior season.
Catastrophic injuries from second-impact syndrome — caused by a concussion that occurs before a previous one has fully healed — are rare, but can prove fatal within minutes, according to Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston neurologist and leading expert on sports concussions. In such instances, trauma to an already vulnerable brain causes severe swelling until the brain ruptures from the brain stem, Cantu said.
Sheely, after having his forehead bandaged for several days, told an assistant coach he “didn’t feel right” and had a headache on Aug. 22, 2011. He walked off the field and collapsed, lapsing into a coma before he died six days later, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit describes him as a spirited, jovial student who earned academic and all-conference honors and hoped to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is survived by his parents, Kenneth and Kristen Sheely, and his sister, Keyton.
Lawyers John M. Klamann and Paul Anderson of Kansas City, Mo., filed the lawsuit in Montgomery County, where the family lives. They declined additional comment Monday.
Other lawsuits over football-related concussions have been filed against both the NCAA and the NFL. Anderson runs a blog devoted to the NFL concussion litigation, which is pending in federal court in Philadelphia.
The NCAA agreed this month to try to negotiate a settlement to the potential class-action lawsuits filed in Chicago involving concussions suffered by thousands of student athletes.
The Sheely lawsuit notes that the NCAA, which generated $838 million in revenue last year, was formed in the early 20th century to protect student athletes.
“Today, those words ring hollow,” the suit said. “Derek’s life was sacrificed to a sport.”