CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The man with perhaps the most gruesome job in sports was unenviably busy. While other football fans spent the last weekend of October watching games, the 74-year-old retiree prepared still more formal inquiries into events that occupy him more than anyone would prefer — two high school football tragedies.
He gathered information from Web searches and e-mailed questionnaires to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The linebacker outside Kansas City, Kan., who collapsed from an apparent brain injury and died the next morning. The junior-varsity defensive back from Fresno, Calif., who was sent to a hospital and into a coma by a hit that caused massive brain swelling.
Fred Mueller (pictured) has almost single-handedly run the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina for 30 years, logging and analyzing more than 1,000 fatal, paralytic or otherwise ghastly injuries in sports from peewees to the pros. His work has repeatedly improved safety for young athletes by identifying patterns that lead to changes in rules, field dimensions and more.
Professional football spent most of October wrestling with how to distill illegal head-to-head collisions out of the sport’s Newtonian chaos. But when Mueller calmly affirms with a nod from behind his desk that this fall’s football catastrophic log is in fact no longer than usual, the knowledge that it used to be worse is somewhat hollow consolation.
“When you see a kid’s picture in the paper and he’s either dead or paralyzed for the rest of his life, it can get to you,” said Mueller, a retired professor at Chapel Hill who still spends most of the workweek on this research. “Or when you have to call the coach or the athletic trainer to learn more about what happened. What I try to look at is, gathering the data is maybe going to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.”
Mueller has no ghoulish tendencies or antipathy toward sports — in fact, he played both sides of the Tar Heels’ line from 1958 to 1960, and he still works out daily in the student gym and bicycles 15 miles during lunch hours. Rather, he has witnessed the power of this data, how gathering these pixels of isolated grief can form pictures of progress.
Begun in 1931 by the American Football Coaches Association, the football death log started to be overseen by the University of North Carolina in the 1960s, when Mueller was a football and lacrosse coach willing to chip in some hours. He never left, and soon after becoming the center’s director in 1980, he expanded it to include catastrophic injuries in all sports, among boys and girls.
Mueller almost immediately noticed a previously hidden cluster in, of all things, pole-vaulting. Several high school and college athletes each year were killed or paralyzed simply by missing the pit with the pole, falling on their heads off the landing pad, or sliding down the pole and hitting their heads on hard surfaces. Pits were soon expanded and surrounded with softer padding.
Mueller detected a strange number of paralytic accidents in organized swimming, all from relay-type dives into water that was too shallow — resulting in today’s minimum depths. He was stunned at the number of injuries among cheerleaders, specifically those who are thrown up to 25 feet high and not caught, which led to other reforms.
“Fred is really dedicated,” said Dr. Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon in Rockville, Md., who has used the injury logs to conduct research of his own. “We’ve looked at wrestling, cheerleading, baseball, football. He’s very generous and a real team player. You can’t find this data anywhere else.”
Gathering the information was once quite scattershot. An expensive newspaper clipping service probably found most athlete deaths but surely missed numerous nonfatal cases involving brain hemorrhages or paralysis. (“Those who recovered usually didn’t make the papers,” Mueller said.) Web news alerts and other search techniques have recently provided a fuller picture of the rare but real risks of organized sports.
And now, people find Mueller within hours of accidents, usually those involving football. A Kansas City-area radio station called him Oct. 29 after Nathan Stiles, a Spring Hill High School linebacker, died from what appeared to be second-impact syndrome — in which a child’s playing too soon after one concussion can allow a subsequent head impact to cause enormous intracranial swelling.
Mueller shared statistics on where the Stiles case fit into the larger landscape. Stiles’s was the first direct death among high school players this year, compared with a typical total of about three. It was also the third catastrophic football injury in 13 days, after the paralysis of Eric LeGrand of Rutgers and Christopher Norton of Luther College in Iowa.
Within hours, Mueller learned of a fourth — the boy from Fresno. Typically, there are 36 of those each year; this year’s running total is 24.
Mueller prepared the standard requests for information: the athlete’s birthday, how the injury occurred, the playing surface, helmet details if applicable, and so on. Most are returned within several months. Occasionally Mueller will have to call the school’s athletic trainer or coach and proceed gingerly. He does not call the parents, though they sometimes call him.
“I think sometimes people at schools are concerned they’ll be blamed for the injury or death, or that it won’t be good for the sport,” Mueller said. “But you explain that names are all confidential, and it’s only for analysis to make sports safer. History proves that.”
Mueller will present that history in his book “Football Fatalities and Catastrophic Injuries, 1931-2008” (Carolina Academic Press), written with Dr. Robert Cantu, who is the Chapel Hill center’s medical director and a primary voice on athletic brain injuries. More than 250 pages detail football’s decade-by-decade tragedies and rule changes — like the 1976 outlawing of spearing and more recent adjustments to kickoff wedges. A final chapter discusses injury prevention strategies and other ways to make football safer.
As that book goes to press, Mueller continues to take his phone calls and scours the Web alongside file cabinets that read “Football Fatality Reports” and “Cat. Cases,” short for catastrophic. He seeks the stories nobody wants to hear, the most gruesome job in sports.
“You could look at it that way,” Mueller said. “But you can also look at it as the best. You’re preventing deaths and disability injuries. That can be pretty satisfying.”
Monday, November 8, 2010
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 10:41 AM