Steamboat Springs As Summit Tigers quarterback Carlos Ebert-Santos remains paralyzed at Craig Hospital in Denver, local high school coaches and players say they are not convinced football is a dangerous sport.
Ebert-Santos had his season come to an abrupt end on Sept. 22, when he suffered a serious neck injury during the first quarter of a football game against the Salida High School Spartans in Frisco.
The quarterback landed on his head after being tackled by a Salida defender and is now quadriplegic. Ebert-Santos underwent surgery on Sept. 23 at St. Anthony's Central Hospital to repair fractured cervical vertebra and a displaced spinal disc. He was transferred to Craig on Tuesday to begin rehabilitation.
The good news for Ebert-Santos, however, is that his doctors say he has been making tremendous progress since his accident.
The incident came during a two-week span where several athletes around the country were seriously injured during football games. Still, coaches and athletic trainers say football is no more violent than riding a bicycle or putting on a pair of shin guards and playing in a soccer match. Football players are protected by helmets and mouthpieces and by pads that guard the shoulders, hip, knee and thigh areas from being seriously hurt.
Coaches at all levels stress form tackling to their football players and try to teach their defensmen not to lead with the top of their helmets on any play.
The injury to Ebert-Santos was actually the second major injury the Tigers have had to deal with this season. During a scrimmage against Steamboat Springs earlier this year, linebacker David Kastberg was taken off the field in an ambulance after he tackled Sailors quarterback Rusty Eck.
Kastberg made a nice hit on Eck but led with the top of his helmet.
He suffered two compression fractures in the rib area and hasn't been able to play football since the Aug. 26 contest. He is expected to return to practice sometime this week.
Kastberg's injury was severe, but he was more fortunate than some other players who recently have been injured.
On Sept. 15, Chris Benniefield of Omaha, Neb., was pronounced dead nearly an hour after he made a tackle against an opposing player for his football team.
Benniefield, an offensive and defensive tackle for North High, died of what is known as Commotio cordis, or a concussion of the heart. The Omaha World-Herald reported a "blunt trauma to the chest" set off the concussion in Benniefield's heart. He had collapsed on the football field after making the tackle.
The injury to Kastberg may have been preventable, Summit's head coach says. But the death of Benniefield and the injury to Ebert-Santos probably were not. Doctors in Nebraska described Commotio cordis as a rare occurrence of cardiac arrest, which is caused by a blow to the chest at a precise moment in the heartbeat.
Ebert-Santos' positioning when he was hit also was a fluke.
On Sept. 23 against Ohio State University, freshman cornerback Adam Taliaferro of Penn State University suffered a severe spinal cord injury when he made a head-first tackle against an Ohio State running back. Though the helmet is designed to protect players when they suffer a blow to the head, an awkward collision led to Taliaferro's injury.
Taliaferro had spinal fusion surgery on Sept. 25 and was in the Ohio State University Medical Center, where he was unable to move his fingers or legs as of Sept. 26. Taliaferro did have movement in his arms, shoulders and wrists. He was transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on Sept. 27 and is now in stable condition.
The injuries suffered by the high school players were described as freak accidents, which coaches say could not have been prevented.
Tom Dickey, head coach for Summit High School, said football is dangerous at times but said he didn't blame the sport for Ebert-Santos' accident.
"I guess I get frustrated when we talk about the dangers of football," Dickey said. "Yeah, in football there is a danger of getting hurt, but I think anything you do, rock climbing, riding a bike or getting in a car, is a risk."
Ebert Santos' injury certainly appeared to be a freak accident. Dickey talked about the injury to his player.
"He was stumbling, and he fell," Dickey said. "It appeared to us that he was just going to tuck and roll.
"But, as he was falling, a player from Salida tackled him, and it prevented him from being able to roll. As a result, he landed on his head."
Ebert-Santos has been optimistic about his recovery, said Craig Hospital spokesman Kenny Hosack, who met the player Tuesday.
"When he arrived this morning, he said that he was enthusiastic to be at Craig to begin his rehabilitation," Hosack said. "And he was optimistic about his future."
Ebert-Santos' mother, Christine, was quoted in previous newspaper articles as saying that she did not hold football responsible for her son's condition. Ebert-Santos has said he looks forward to one day playing football again.
Steve Willard, director of sports medicine at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the injuries suffered by Ebert-Santos and Benniefield were rare.
Though football is considered a high-risk sport, along with other sports such as soccer, hockey and gymnastics, the percentage of major injuries that happen to football players is extremely small, Willard said.
"There are sports that are considered high-risk sports for injuries," Willard said. "But, that's taking all interests into account not just life-threatening injuries.
"I certainly think that a lot of work has to be done in the collegiate and professional level, and not to discount the high school level, to make every attempt to continue to upgrade the safeguards associated with athletics," Willard said.
Mark Drake, Steamboat Springs High School football coach, agrees with Dickey that players are constantly taught preventable ways from being injured while making tackles. Both Drake and Dickey sympathize with the recent injuries but defend their sport from being labeled as violent.
"You know, see some of those things like that, you just really can't prevent," Drake said. "There's no protective equipment or anything that you can do.
"All you can do is keep stressing to the kids when you're practicing, and in your drills and so forth, is proper tackling form."
Ryan Wattles, who plays safety for the Sailors, was at the scrimmage between Steamboat and Summit this summer. He saw how Kastberg had injured himself after he watched a videotape of the scrimmage several days later. Wattles heard the news about Ebert-Santos and labels the play as a tragic but freak accident.
Though football games offer athletes an exciting opportunity to compete at all levels, Wattles knows a player can go down with an injury at any time. The thrill of the game, however, sometimes overrides the worries.
"I guess you can't really be afraid," Wattles said. "But, the threat is definitely there.
"I mean, every play could be your last one, which is unfortunate. But, I think it's a risk that everyone realizes and is willing to take."
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