2016 Best Feature Story: Jon Solomon

Comment by the judge, Michael Weinreb: A well-crafted and comprehensive piece that directly confronts the concussion crisis through the telling of one family’s personal story.

By Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com

GERMANTOWN, Md. — Three blown-up photos of Ken and Kristen Sheely’s deceased son sit on the dining room table. There’s Derek as a little boy with his cute, wide smile. There’s an older Derek dressed in a tuxedo looking dapper for a school photo. There’s Derek celebrating a football championship with his high school teammates, playing the sport he loved so much that he helped pay his own way to transfer from Penn State to Division III Frostburg State so he could extend his football career.

The pictures occupy a permanent place on the table in the Sheelys’ suburban Maryland home, where the blinds are drawn. There is no new normal for two parents as they approach the fourth anniversary of their son’s death from traumatic head injuries sustained at a Frostburg State practice — injuries that Ken and Kristen believe in their gut could have been prevented.

Kristen often lives at the family’s house near Penn State; it’s better to avoid normal conversations with parents who knew Derek and casually talk as if nothing happened. Ken, who works for the U.S. Department of Energy, permanently stays in Maryland but does grocery shopping on Sundays at 6:30 a.m. to avoid running into people he knows.

“What kind of conversation am I supposed to have with people?” Ken asks. “There are times when you can be looking to other people like normal, but we think of Derek 24/7. We think about what he would be doing now.”

Kristen softly sobs deeply in the background and wipes away tears. “Time is pretty much before and after Derek so the distance between when we last had him is exponential,” she says. “There’s no moving on for us — and we don’t want to, either. We often think what kind of parents would we be if we were ‘healed’ and had ‘peace’? I want my son back and that’s that.”

Most likely, you don’t know the name Derek Sheely. Like so many indistinguishable Division III players, Sheely played college football because he loved the game, and for the bond with his teammates.

If you do recognize Sheely’s name, it’s probably because Ken and Kristen remain in a lawsuit against the NCAA, Frostburg State coach Tom Rogish, running backs coach Jamie Schumacher and trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr., and helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports. The parents claim the Frostburg State employees missed multiple opportunities to treat Derek’s head injury, and the NCAA failed to implement concussion rules or investigate why their son’s brain was so traumatically injured that he collapsed Aug. 22, 2011, on a practice field and died six days later.

For a while, Ken and Kristen believed Derek’s death was a freak accident given the information they say they received from coaches. That changed on March 22, 2012, when an anonymous Frostburg State player emailed details of what he claims he witnessed — claims that other teammates later corroborated.

Ken and Kristen say they learned Derek went to the trainer four times over three days complaining of symptoms, including blood coming from his forehead, yet he was never given a concussion test. According to the anonymous email that was filed as part of the lawsuit, Derek complained of a headache after a dangerous drill, causing Shumacher to respond as Rogish stood next to him, “Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a p***y and get back out there Sheely!” When Derek later collapsed and players yelled for help, Rogish and Schumacher initially hollered for Derek to get up, according to the email. The coaches and trainer have denied wrongdoing.

“This is a boy they knew, too, which is something we have a difficult time with,” Kristen says. “They knew what kind of young man they had on that team who led others.”

Derek was the kid who intentionally wore a Steve Young jersey every day in Pee Wee practice in York, Pa., so coaches would remember him out of 100 children.

He was the child who came home from practice and immediately did sit-ups and push-ups before asking his dad to set up five chairs so he could practice running through the proper hole.

He was the diehard Penn State fan who signed a “contract” with his parents to take school seriously upon transferring from his dream university to play football at Frostburg State, because Ken and Kristen thought Derek was foolishly trying to relive his high school football days.

He was the Frostburg State senior co-captain with dreams of working for the CIA; who postponed his graduation date because he had one year of football eligibility left; who bussed tables to pay for school; who, as Ken and Kristen learned after his death, helped his best friend pay bills.

So no, you may not know Derek Sheely. But you probably know someone like him. And that should concern college football leaders. If football loses suburban families like the Sheelys, what does the sport’s future look like?

Will NCAA create enforceable rules for concussion care?

Ken wants to be clear: He and his wife don’t want to kill football — “Derek would be the first one horrified if we fundamentally changed football” — but they want to make it safer. Ken compares the football industry today to where the automotive industry used to be when rolling out new safety features.

“They put in seat belts and air bags in cars and anti-lock brakes, and people didn’t want them and said it would kill car sales,” Ken says. “We have more cars in this country now than ever and people want these safety features. What’s going to drive people away from football is mothers and parents that don’t trust the coaches and the NCAA to look after the interests of the kids. That’s what’s going to ruin football.”

No topic gets Ken angrier than discussing the NCAA and its inability, or unwillingness, to investigate a player’s death, or to set rules for contact in practice and concussion protocols but then not adhere to them — guidelines without teeth. The trauma to Derek’s brain was so devastating that doctors asked Ken and Kristen if he was in a car accident. Upon learning, no, the injury happened playing football, the doctors asked why Derek wasn’t wearing a helmet. He was. Ken and Kristen have tried unsuccessfully to reclaim his helmet from Frostburg State. The parents want it to remember him by, though they also allege Schutt Sports misrepresented that its DNA Pro Plus helmet worn by Derek can prevent head injuries.

“Derek had no contact all summer [before he died],” Ken says. “I dropped him off at school and basically a week later he had sustained so much head trauma, in one week, that he died from it. It’s not even believable that that could happen. Even in the macho environment of football where it’s, ‘Suck it up, just keep doing it,’ it was so excruciatingly bad that Derek sought out help and he was turned away, and the NCAA doesn’t want to come in and investigate.”

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Frostburg State coaches and trainer, has denied the coaches and trainer did anything wrong. Even if the allegations are true, lawyers for the Frostburg State employees wrote that the accusations don’t meet the legal standards for liability.

In court documents, the NCAA said that though it sympathizes with the Sheely family, the NCAA has no legal duty to protect college athletes because organizers of sporting events are not liable for injuries to voluntary participants who know the risk of injury. The NCAA’s own website has said the association was founded in 1906 “to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time,” a reference, in part, to recurring deaths on the football field that caused Teddy Roosevelt to take action.

At a 2014 Senate hearing on college sports, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) opened by asking how the NCAA could justify it has no legal duty to protect athletes. “At the very least, that was a terrible choice of words created by legal counsel to make a legal argument,” NCAA president Mark Emmert replied.

In reality, that’s exactly the NCAA’s legal argument: The NCAA surely wants to protect players and tries to do so, but it has no legal obligation. It’s a similar argument the NCAA uses as a defendant in a lawsuit over the academic scandal at North Carolina, arguing the NCAA has no legal duty to ensure the academic integrity of courses universities offer.

“What are they there for then?” Kristen asks. “I thought they were created for health and safety.”

The NCAA wrote that the alleged conduct at Frostburg State “would be in violation of NCAA guidelines and rules, best practices from medical experts, and even common sense.” But the NCAA said because it was not at the practices, the association doesn’t know if the allegations are true.

“See if a player signs an autograph and gets paid, and all of a sudden the NCAA will have 20 people investigating that thing,” Ken says, his voice rising in anger. “But player well-being? Then it’s only guidelines.”

One nagging question Ken and Kristen often wonder: Would the NCAA have investigated if this happened at a high-profile Division I school? Would the public outcry have been so much that the NCAA’s hands would have been forced to examine Derek’s death?

Ken worries about what he calls an “awkward middle” in football, meaning many lower-profile players lack protection and don’t matter as much. They’re the bodies who make up rosters — not the stars who NFL owners, college coaches and even high schools want to protect because of their value. In reality, these are the players that compose the majority of NCAA rosters. Even at the Division I level, there are very few true stars.

Still, even critics of the NCAA will acknowledge that concussions in college sports are being handled better than they were a couple years ago. But NCAA improvements often happen incrementally — even slower in some instances than NFL and youth football — and without an enforceable standard for everybody in college sports.

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline has been pushing for concussion safety rules, but has said he runs into the NCAA’s bureaucracy. Instead of rules across all divisions, there are guidelines — there’s that word again — and some individual conferences even apply their own policies. This year, certified athletic trainers or neurologists will be upstairs at football games for Power Five conferences looking for concussion symptoms. Yet how much control the medical officials have in stopping games, and whether they are independent, varies by conference.

Also new this year, the Power Five conferences have a concussion safety protocol committee that approves a school’s concussion plans by sport before a team can participate. Yet the committee can’t penalize schools if procedures later get violated. Why not?

“Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby bluntly said last winter. “They want to have local control and their coaches [are] saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.'”

Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University neurologist, said the NCAA’s relationship with conferences and schools is so complex that he’s not sure how the structure can produce consistent change for all athletes.

“The NCAA as the overarching organization has made tremendous changes over the last few years to improve the management of concussions,” Stern said. “The big issue, though, is much more common repetitive hits to the head that may not be detected or diagnosed as a concussion. Some leagues do it, but college football is not consistently reducing full-contact practices. The more that can be the focus, the happier I’ll be.”

A recent study by University of Virginia researchers documented this concern by analyzing the Cavaliers’ practices, which equated to about two full-pad sessions per week. The NFL has one such practice a week. The study found, for example, that two Virginia defensive tackles each had about 11 more head impacts during full-pad workouts than in shell workouts. The average difference for a player was 4.1.

None of this will bring Derek back, of course. Ken and Kristen say they were misled by coaches that Derek died from an unpreventable, freak accident, and not due to repetitive and dangerous actions. On Sept. 6, 2011, Frostburg State athletic director Troy Dell was asked by d3football.com if Derek’s death was a freak accident. “I’m going to pass on that one,” Dell responded. Dell, who has been deposed in the case, declined to comment through the university’s general counsel due to the lawsuit.

Rogish, the Frostburg State head coach, retired in 2013 three months after the lawsuit was filed. He finished with a 14-45 record. In an interview with d3football.com shortly after Derek died, Rogish said Derek had one of the team’s five highest grade point averages and had a passion for football while never missing summer workouts. “He was just a very committed athlete,” Rogish said.

Schumacher, the assistant who allegedly berated Derek to keep practicing while hurt, also left Frostburg State. Sweitzer Jr. remained employed at Frostburg State until leaving on Aug. 7, 2015, according to the university.

“Although FSU understands that the allegations asserted in the lawsuit have been and will continue to be strongly disputed, our deepest sympathies remain extended to the Sheely family,” Frostburg State general counsel Karen Treber said in a statement. “Derek Sheely was an outstanding member of the FSU community and his loss continues to be profoundly felt here. … FSU awards a scholarship in Mr. Sheely’s name each year to an outstanding student in a continuing tribute. We will continue to do so.”

Ken and Kristen created the Derek Sheely Foundation to bring awareness to their story and help others. But they find it’s hard to promote the foundation given how often they feel rejected by the NCAA.

“Practice limits cost the NCAA no money, yet they can’t get schools to do it,” Ken says. “They claim to have no power. They’re a powerless organization. … The irony of this whole thing from our standpoint is if the NCAA had responded to us, ‘Yes, we want to find out what really happened to Derek,’ they would have been the hero. We never wanted to sue anybody and we still don’t. We want to fix this thing. As far as I’m concerned, the offer is still on the table.”

‘We’re kind of stuck back then’

The Sheely lawsuit is now two years old. The trial date was recently delayed again, this time from September until June 2016, so additional discovery and depositions can occur. The Frostburg State player who anonymously tipped off the family has been found — his name is Brandon Henderson — and he’s willing to testify.

All parties have lined up some heavy hitters as expert witnesses. The Frostburg State coaches and trainer secured prominent neurologist Julian Bailes, who has been an NFL and college football team physician; concussion expert Kevin Guskiewicz, a certified athletic trainer at North Carolina; high-profile neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, the team physician at Michigan; and former Alabama coach Gene Stallings and Division III national championship coach Bill Manlove to discuss coaching techniques. The NCAA has reserved the right to use those witnesses and others as well.

Among the experts for Ken and Kristen are prominent neurologist Robert Cantu, one of the nation’s leading concussion experts; and Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Haynes, who chairs the NFL Alumni’s Health and Wellness Committee.

Cantu believes Derek’s death was preventable, and that he sustained second impact syndrome — a condition that occurs when the brain swells rapidly after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier one have subsided. Bailes, a witness for the coaches and trainer, said there’s no evidence Derek experienced second impact syndrome, and that his death was caused by an acute suburdal hematoma that happens several times a year across the United States due to football collisions.

Because Derek was cremated, his brain was never studied by researchers. If Ken and Kristen had known the alleged circumstances around Derek’s death, they would have donated his brain to be analyzed.

“It’s never been about the money, so [the NCAA] can’t do anything from a monetary standpoint to not necessarily take this to trial,” Ken says. “They know what it is we’re looking for.”

Ken starts describing what they want — a list Ken and Kristen say they suggested to NCAA lawyers during an eight-hour mediation a year ago. Ken says he has “kooky” ideas that new NCAA concussion rules will be called the Derek Sheely Safety Rules, and that a Derek Sheely Safety Award will be established that will recognize players who speak up for teammates who won’t sit down with concussion symptoms.

What if a player safety award one day meant as much to the public as the Heisman Trophy? That’s highly unlikely. But these are the things that run through a dad’s mind so his son didn’t die without some purpose.

Ken and Kristen want standardized hitting limits at practices for all sports in all NCAA divisions. They want to ban certain drills, such as the one Frostburg State players called “the drill” that Derek, a fullback, was participating in when he collapsed.

Henderson, the anonymous emailer, described the drill run by Schumacher as “way more dangerous” than it should have been. The email said fullbacks repeatedly plowed over linebackers, who were told by Schumacher they could not defend themselves. Fullbacks not in the offensive rotation would play linebacker as Schumacher encouraged hard hits. When defensive players tried to make contact to defend themselves, Schumacher was furious, Henderson wrote. Basically, if what Henderson says is accurate, defensive players like Sheely had to stand still and get repeatedly run over. The lawsuit claims two other Frostburg State players sustained concussions in “the drill” just days before Sheely’s incident, and some players quit the team because of the drill.

Perhaps more than anything else, Ken and Kristen want the NCAA to investigate player safety issues. They want the NCAA to have the ability to suspend coaches whose actions are irresponsible. They understand many injuries can’t be investigated. But what Ken and Kristen can’t wrap their head around is how a college athlete dies playing an NCAA-sanctioned sport and an association created for player safety won’t demand answers.

Ken stresses he’s not saying every school is corrupt and every coach can’t be trusted. Still, he’s skeptical. He watched Michigan quarterback Shane Morris stumble around on the field last season after a hit to the head, stay in the game, and then later return for one play despite the university later acknowledging he suffered a concussion.

If it’s happening at Michigan, Ken wonders, why wouldn’t this be happening when the cameras aren’t on at practices or at lower-level schools? If colleges can’t afford to have neurologists at practices and games, Ken says, maybe the NCAA or College Football Playoff needs to foot that bill.

After the Michigan incident last fall, Hainline — the NCAA chief medical officer — said he could envision an NCAA enforcement system for concussions that could cover the entire association, but holes would still exist. “I don’t see a way of monitoring every possible thing,” Hainline said. “You have to be fair and say we’re not just looking at the televised games. You have to look at the 97 percent of other games going on, too. Those kids are at as much risk or not more.”

Ken still watches football. Kristen won’t watch anymore, but she doesn’t want to blame the sport as a whole — largely because of Derek’s love for the game — for what happened to her son. “Because Derek loved football, I’m more comfortable blaming the people who killed our child.”

Football allows Ken to still feel connected to Derek. Before Derek died, the family had just bought two Penn State season tickets. They anticipated a fight with Derek over who got to use them.

But yes, it’s impossible not to watch a football game differently after your son died from football injuries. “When you see somebody get injured and you hear an announcer say head injuries will really change when somebody dies playing football, that’s hard to hear,” Ken says. “People have died playing football, not just Derek.”

Ken believes the culture of football will change once a coach pulls an injured star player on the winning drive of the national championship game, demonstrating that doing the right thing trumps winning.

“It’s going to take courageous coaches, courageous parents, a courageous leader of the NCAA,” Ken says. “The thing that’s cowardly to do is to do the wrong thing and you know it’s wrong. The opposite of that is to do something you know is right but everybody else — society — doesn’t want to hear that. That’s what it’s going to take. This is a sad state, but if the only thing we do in this whole thing is for the next football coach whose player comes to them saying, ‘I’m not feeling well,’ and the first thing in the coach’s head is, ‘I might get my butt sued off if I don’t take care of this kid first,’ that is at least a change in the thought process instead of, ‘Bleepity, bleep, get back in there.'”

Derek physically lives on. He was a registered organ donor and some of his organs have helped other people’s lives. Two people now see because of Derek. Some stranger has kidneys because of Derek. Since Derek was on so much medication between the week he was hospitalized and died, some of his organs couldn’t be donated.

“We’re proud he did that, but it doesn’t help us,” Kristen says. She briefly considered trying to learn about the people who received Derek’s organs, “but I don’t think I can know.”

At the end of an interview with a reporter, Ken pulls out a photo album of Derek as a kid. Kristen moves onto the sofa to look since it has been too long since she saw them. “Aww,” she says, rubbing her eyes.

There’s Derek riding on a sled. There’s Derek and his sister Keyton at Disney World. There’s Derek pretending to be surprised when he got a cell phone as a present.

Ken tells the story of a young Derek standing up to a bully shortly after the family moved to Maryland. Two kids told Derek he was in their seat. Derek stood up, looked at the seat, and sarcastically replied, “I don’t see your name,” and sat down. The bullies beat him up. But they got booted off the bus a day later, causing other kids to thank Derek because they had previously been harassed.

“He might not have won the battle, but he won the war,” Ken says.

Ken and Kristen feel a responsibility to fight their own battles and win some sort of war for Derek. It’s not a war against football. Maybe it’s a war for common sense. Maybe it’s a war for doing the right thing.

Winning the lawsuit — what does winning even mean when your son is gone? — won’t fill the hole. There’s no new normal for Ken and Kristen. Ken shows the tattoos he got on his arm to remember Derek. Kristen looks at the blown-up pictures of Derek on the dining room table and can’t bear to come too close to them.

“To some degree,” Ken says, “we’re kind of stuck back then.”

Jon Solomon

jon-solomon

Jon Solomon

AGE: 40

COLLEGE: Maryland

Jon has won his fourth first-place award in the FWAA Best Writing Contest and been recognized a total of 11 times. He won in 2011 at The Birmingham News for a feature on the complicated life of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain; in 2011 at The Birmingham News for a game story on Mississippi State’s first game since defensive end Nick Bell’s death; and in 2004 at The Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail for a column on James “Radio” Kennedy’s impact on the Anderson community. Jon has covered national college football at CBSSports.com since 2014. He previously covered Clemson for The Anderson Independent-Mail (1999-2003) and The State (2003-05), and wrote columns, enterprise and investigative stories for The Birmingham News (2005-2014). Jon’s wife, Mandy, and their two sons, Daniel and Josh, are the joys of his life and somehow put up with Jon’s crazy work schedule. Jon and his family live in Maryland, where they are big Orioles fans despite their feast-or-famine offense and shaky starting pitching.

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