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Life and death

The true cost of inequality in high school football

The last time she spoke to her son, Lashona Williams was sitting alone in the bleachers of Greenville High School’s football stadium, near midfield and a few rows up from the team bench. The school band, banging drums and cymbals and decked out in Hornet black and gold, had just marched from the parking lot. The scent of barbecue and tamales swirled from under the stands into the night air.

Usually a contingent of family — siblings, a godsister, godmothers — went to the games with Williams to watch Jeremiah. Not on Nov. 2, 2018. An afternoon cold front had plunged the temperature to 50 degrees at the time of the 7 p.m. kickoff, unseasonably cool for the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, which had lost every game since the season opener in August, was playing its last regular-season game against Madison Central, a perennial power from the Jackson suburbs headed for the state playoffs.

Despite the challenge, Jeremiah Williams was more optimistic about the outcome than his family and many of his peers. Between classes in the white-tiled hallways of Greenville High, he wore headphones over his ears, zoning out to music by NBA Young Boy. In the south end zone, just before gametime, he kept slapping his teammate Rufino Griffin’s hand, trying to hype him up. “That day he was so excited,” says Jokayah Sanders, his close friend. “He was like, ‘we finna win.’”

Jeremiah was known to friends and family as Dugg, a shortened version of his childhood nickname “Dugga Wugga.” “When you first meet Dugg you’d think he was mean or antisocial,” says Errick Simmons, Jr., a Greenville football player. “But once you really got to know him, with us, we really knew how he really acted. He was goofy, playful, really sneaky.”

When Sanders met Jeremiah in the second grade, she says she and Jeremiah made a pact to go steady. Not long after, he sat next to another girl on the school bus. Sanders said she would never speak to him again, a vow that lasted for only a few days. “We couldn’t stay mad at each other,” she says. When he wasn’t playing sports at the local YMCA or the Elwyn Ward Recreation Center, he was hanging out with Sanders. They liked watching old movies like Baby Boy and Love & Basketball, and she’d make them noodles with Ro-Tel cheese.

Jeremiah had beaming brown eyes and a buzzcut, and his face often expressed a warm, knowing smile. Despite standing no taller than 5’8 and weighing perhaps 165 pounds, he had blossomed into Greenville’s star player, a junior defensive back tasked with stopping the opposing team’s top receiver. His status on the team was evident from the gold numeral emblazoned on his jersey: No. 1.

But with Greenville fielding the opening kickoff, he began the game on the bench. Before the offense had run a play, Jeremiah turned around to the bleachers, facing his mother.

Mom, can you get me a Gatorade?

Yeah, son.

At the concession stand, nobody was in line. Williams bought Jeremiah his drink and, for herself, some nachos. She had no idea what was happening on the field.

Then-Greenville coach Sherrod Gideon remembers the play clearly. “It sticks with me every day,” he says. “I go back and watch the video and look at it (and wonder) what could’ve happened on that play to have a different outcome.” Greenville threw an interception on the first play of the game. Jeremiah entered the field from the sidelines. On what Gideon recalls as the next play, a Madison Central player broke loose on a run after Greenville’s defense overcommitted to the inside. Jeremiah freed himself from blockers as the ball carrier was about to score. At the same time that Jeremiah went in for the hit, the player, who was taller, lowered his shoulder, and the top of Jeremiah’s head collided with the player’s body.

When Lashona Williams returned from the concession stand, the stadium had fallen quiet. “I could see a player down on the field,” she says. “I knew that it couldn’t be him because he was just on the sideline. And I come up and the cheerleaders turn around. They looking. Now my heart is beating. I’m looking for a ‘1.’ It’s like everybody’s looking at me now.

“He just laid on the ground. No movement. No nothing. I called his name, shaking him. Nothing.”

Jeremiah Williams was airlifted from the stadium to a hospital in Jackson, suffering from fractured vertebrae. A ventilator kept him alive for seven days. He never regained consciousness, and his brain never showed any signs of activity. He was the third player to die during a high school football game in Mississippi in the fall of 2018.

On Sept. 10, 2018, Houston High School’s William Anderson, a 15-year-old offensive lineman, removed himself from a JV game and collapsed on the sideline. He died three hours later from an embolism. Doctors at the hospital in Tupelo, a 45-minute drive from Houston, had to wait for Anderson to stabilize before transferring him to a trauma center in Memphis. Two weeks earlier, he and his mother had been discussing the death of another player. Dennis Mitchell, a 16-year-old defensive lineman for Byhalia High School collapsed and died on Aug. 24 while playing at Coahoma County High School, in the Delta. Byhalia did not have an athletic trainer on hand.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, 218 middle school and high school boys died from football between 2000 and 2018, an average of 11 deaths per year. One-hundred-fifty boys suffered indirect deaths, from cardiac arrest, blood clots, heat stroke or similar causes. Sixty-eight of the deaths were direct. Like Williams, most of these 68 boys died after sustaining blows to the head and neck.

Football deaths are occurring in an era in which improved tackling techniques, athletic trainers, AEDs and helmets have supposedly made football safer than ever. At the college and professional level, death is much rarer. But the high school level is plagued by inequality, crippling budget cuts and de facto school segregation, factors that prevent underserved schools from affording athletic trainers, new helmets and lessons in the latest tackling advancements. Since 2009, the districts encompassing Houston, Greenville and Byhalia have faced annual state funding shortfalls that cumulatively total $55 million. Bereft of resources, underserved urban and rural high schools often fail to provide basic equipment and safety measures, or are located far from trauma centers. These shortcomings, a disturbing wedge between the haves and have-nots, add greater risk to a game that leads to catastrophic injury and death every fall.

Although nobody has completed an academic study examining the characteristics of high school football deaths, a pattern has emerged over the last several years: Most of the boys who have died are young men of color from distressed communities, like Williams, Mitchell and Anderson.

In the January/February 2019 issue of the journal Sports Health, University of Washington sports medicine professor Jon Drezner published a study on sudden cardiac arrest, one of the leading causes of indirect deaths in high school football. Drezner examined athletes in all sports between the ages of 11 and 27. It found that though almost half of athletes who suffered sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) survived, black athletes were twice as likely to die from SCA as white athletes. The study spurred Drezner to explore connections between race and socioeconomics in SCA. The socioeconomic data did not return a statistically significant correlation with death over the four-year period. “However,” Drezner says, “they all trended in that direction, suggesting that maybe there’s a relationship.”

And in the first two years of the data, socioeconomic factors did correlate with death. “If you had SCA you were more likely to die of SCA if you were in a school with a higher percentage of students on free and reduced lunch,” he says.

In 2019, at least six high school boys were reported to have died from football, in Florida, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Missouri and Louisiana. Lashona Williams has heard about many on the news. When a player named Jacquez Welch died during a football game in September in Florida, the news was a particularly hard reminder of Jeremiah. “Son o son how I miss you so very much,” she posted on Facebook. “My heart is so heavy. Momma is trying her hardest to keep it together but Lord knows it’s hard and it seems like ever since you left me all I see is young men passing away in the same sport.”

Shortly before he died, William Anderson discussed quitting football with his parents. He preferred basketball, ATV rides on his family’s wooded property and perfecting his hair: William’s goal was to one day be an entrepreneur in the hair industry. But going to college was going to be an obstacle, given the middle-class salaries of his stepfather Jamarcus Smith, a truck driver, and his mother Vida Anderson-Smith, a bank teller. When William brought up the possibility of quitting football, Jamarcus Smith remembers telling his son, “‘If you don’t want to play football just think about that football can get you to a scholarship and you can try to start your own hair product.’” Although William was a freshman, Houston coach Ty Hardin says that William’s size and talent projected him to become a college player.

Jeremiah Williams, the sixth of Lashona Williams’s eight children, was on a similar trajectory. He was dribbling balls before he could walk, and would talk to his friends about playing Division I. In a September 2018 game, Jeremiah held the top wide receiver in the state to 37 yards, and Gideon realized Jeremiah was becoming a college prospect.

Even as the risks of football become better understood, black children, who often come from middle- and lower-income families, continue to play the sport, while white children, who are often from wealthier families, are giving it up. About 24 percent of white high school boys play football, according to estimates from a 2018 Monitoring the Future survey of 10th grade boys by University of Michigan professor Philip Veliz, a number that has fallen steadily from 30 percent since 2014. But 35 percent of black high school boys play football, almost the same as the 37 percent who played in 2014. White athletes still account for the majority of total high school football players, at 56 percent, according to Veliz, with black athletes representing 22 percent.

The lure of football is particularly strong in Mississippi, where nearly one-third of children grow up in poverty, and the sport has long been a way to earn college scholarships. It is one of only eight states where high school football participation has not declined since 2010. The end of every fall week is a three-day celebration: The state’s numerous junior colleges play on Thursdays, high schools on Fridays and Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss on Saturdays, along with storied HBCU’s like Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State.

Seemingly every school district — from the Gulf Coast in the south, to the Piney Woods of the east, to the Delta of the west — boasts star alumni. A Mississippi statistician found that, as of 2016, 44 of the state’s 82 counties had sent at least one player to the NFL. In 2018, Mississippi ranked fourth in the country in current NFL players per capita, ahead of Florida, Texas and California.

Gideon, the former Greenville coach, is an example of a Mississippi local using football to change his life. He was a top recruit and honor student at Greenwood High School in the Delta, an All-American wide receiver at Southern Mississippi and an NFL Draft pick (he was selected one spot behind Tom Brady in 2000). In Greenville and other high poverty Delta communities, according to Gideon, “There’s really nothing to do if you’re not playing sports. You really can get into some type of trouble if that’s not what you doing.”

Outside of sports like lacrosse, baseball and ice hockey, which are often not offered at rural and urban schools and often require athletes to join expensive club teams, football gives high school athletes the highest percentage chance of making an NCAA team. Thousands more roster spots are also available at the NAIA and community college level. The current coach of Greenville High School, Quintarus McCray, estimates 10 of his senior players can advance to play in junior colleges. “I’m just trying to get them away from here,” he says, “even a couple hours away.”

But the resources available to Mississippi’s rural and urban public schools don’t match the importance that players and their families attach to the game. When Gideon arrived at Greenville High School in 2017, he says the high school didn’t have blocking sleds or tackling rings, which players use to improve tackling technique while avoiding physical contact at practice. The helmets, which must be replaced every 10 years per guidelines from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, were still usable but nearing their expiration date. On the lower end, helmets go for $150 to $200 each, and $500 for top of the line models. Outfitting a full team of 60 to 70 players would have cost the school approximately $14,000, the entirety of Greenville’s annual football budget, Gideon says.

Greenville High School, where almost every student is black and every student is eligible for free lunch, plays at the 6A level of athletics. Its district opponents in 2018 included suburban Northwest Rankin and Madison Central. Both schools have racially diverse student bodies but are majority white. For athletics, Greenville budgeted $78,000 in 2018-19, or about $64 per student. Northwest Rankin budgeted $215,000 ($127 per student) and Madison Central budgeted $339,000 ($261 per student). Northwest Rankin and Madison Central also typically receive mid-six figure contributions from booster clubs, according to Form-990 tax filings, and have modern weight rooms and training programs, sleek uniforms, doctors on the sidelines and video scoreboards.

“Look at they facilities and then come to Greenville,” Gideon says, “and you think there’s no way these two teams are playing against each other.”

Greenville also did not employ a staff athletic trainer or use one on a contract basis when Gideon started coaching, he says. He reached an agreement with an athletic trainer at Mississippi Valley State to attend games when she wasn’t on the road. Gideon says he paid the athletic trainer $200 for each game out of his pocket or with funds from the school’s modest booster club. “Especially competing against those types of teams you have to have [athletic trainers, quality helmets and tackling rings] in order for those kids to be safe,” he says.

Gideon left Greenville at the end of the 2018-19 school year for an assistant coaching position at Yazoo City High School, whose district was taken over by the state after receiving the Mississippi Department of Education’s lowest accountability rating. There, he again found a school lacking in proper safety measures, including an athletic trainer. The school, he says, now contracts an athletic trainer who works for the county. Yazoo City alumnus Fletcher Cox, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, donated money that will help the school purchase new helmets and refurbish the locker room.

I asked several of the people interviewed for this story what they hoped would happen after a year in which three Mississippi boys died playing football. Many offered immeasurable goals like community togetherness and school spirit. Others, like Gideon and Errick Simmons, the mayor of Greenville, were more pragmatic. Simmons says that in the aftermath of Jeremiah Williams’s death the whole community rallied (a GoFundMe raised $40,000 from black and white residents, including a prominent Republican business owner), but longer-term changes are needed. “The state needs to get involved to have consistency from school to school,” he says. “Between black schools and predominantly white schools, the state should be involved to ensure safety across the board for football players.”

The failure of Mississippi to adequately protect football players is tied to decades of abandonment and neglect that trace back to the end of segregation. After Brown v. Board in 1954, white Mississippi legislators, seeking to avoid desegregation, wanted an option to dissolve public education entirely. They rewrote the state constitution so the legislature was no longer required to provide public education funding. In Greenville, private segregation academies sprung up in churches and hotels. Although newspaper accounts at the time cited college prep as motivation, white parents freely expressed concern about their children attending school with black children at whites-only meetings. Local historian Benjy Nelken, who had recently returned from college, recalls attending one of these meetings and warning that abandoning the public schools would be bad for Greenville.

Nelken runs Greenville’s history museum, which is adorned with old maps, newspaper clippings and photos of Archie Manning and Louis Armstrong. When I visited with him on a September afternoon, he took a framed picture off the wall featuring the first graduating class of Greenville’s Washington School, a segregation academy that opened in 1970. Grayscale portraits of six white girls are arranged in a circle. “Those are the first ones that parents wanted to be removed,” he says, “because of fear of the black males.”

Today the vast majority of white children in Greenville (the city is about 20 percent white and 80 percent black) attend Washington School, St. Joseph’s Catholic School or Greenville Christian Academy. According to research by Jake McGraw, project coordinator at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, roughly 40 percent of Mississippi schools feature student bodies that are at least 90 percent of one race. Last year, a Center for Public Integrity analysis found that no Mississippi public school district that was made up of 75 percent or more black students was rated “A” or “B” in the state’s accountability ratings. And no school district with a proportion of white students 75 percent or higher was rated “D” or “F.” Greenville High School received an “F” in accountability ratings for the 2018-19 school year. Majority-black Byhalia High School and Houston High School received a “D” and “C,” respectively.

“Race has always been the principal dividing line of who gets an education in Mississippi and who doesn’t,” McGraw says. “While the systems and laws have changed and progressed, in many ways we still in 2019 have a fundamentally segregated system.”

In the last decade, Mississippi lawmakers failed to reach the mandated funding level of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which was passed in 1997 to ensure greater support at lower-income schools. Statewide since FY 2009, school districts have been shortchanged by an estimated $2.5 billion, according to The Parents’ Campaign Research & Education Fund. The pinch is particularly severe in urban and rural areas that can’t rely on wealthy local tax bases.

In 2015, the Greenville school district was one of nearly two dozen districts to legally challenge the state’s failure to fund schools through MAEP, but the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled the government did not have to fully fund the schools. McGraw says the majority of Republican state leaders “fought tooth and nail” against the lawsuit, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is now governor, later tried, but failed, to eliminate MAEP.

“The state and the current leadership have not taken an active role, an aggressive role, and have not shown great concern in public education,” Simmons says. “The policies of the last eight years have been vouchers and taking money from the public schools and getting money for the academies or creating a charter school system. If we really invest taxpayers’ money in the public school system, you will see an improvement.”

Facing shortages, schools have been forced to make sacrifices. Byhalia High School did not provide an athletic trainer at the game when Dennis Mitchell died because it could not afford one. Principal James Kimbrough, who was at the game, says Byhalia still does not contract or employ an athletic trainer, and its rural location away from major hospitals and universities gives it scant options for finding volunteers. “If you look throughout Mississippi, most of the rural schools or less affluent schools, they’re not going to have that,” he says. Kimbrough described state government officials as being unaware of the needs of schools like Byhalia: “They don’t realize that kids with less need more. That’s the golden rule. And I don’t think a lot of them understand that rule.”

The nonprofit governing body of state athletics, the Mississippi High School Activities Association, does not require athletic trainers or even AEDs, although it encourages both. Don Hinton, the association’s executive director, says the limited budgets and rural locations of many schools would make mandates difficult. In 2015, a state legislature committee audited the MHSAA over concerns about athletic eligibility requirements and financial transparency, but not for safety.

As of late January, more than 17 months after Mitchell died, the state medical examiner’s office, beset by funding cuts, has not returned a cause of death. Scotty Meredith, the coroner in the county where Mitchell died, says cases can take up to three years to be resolved. He says Mitchell’s mother has called him two to three times a month seeking an update. “There’s nothing in the system for me to give her closure,” Meredith says. “It’s pitiful.”

In northeast Mississippi, William Anderson had to be taken to a hospital in Tupelo because the local emergency room of Houston’s Trace Regional Hospital closed in 2014 due to financial distress. William’s mother, Vida Anderson-Smith, says the Tupelo staff wanted to airlift him to a higher-level trauma hospital in Memphis. Before he was stable for the transfer, about three hours after leaving the football game, William lost consciousness when an undiagnosed blood clot traveled to his heart.

Trace Regional was one of five rural hospitals to close in the state since 2010, and a February 2019 study placed nearly half of Mississippi’s remaining rural hospitals at high financial risk. Former Houston State Rep. Russell Jolly has attributed the closure of Trace to Mississippi’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Ryan Kelly, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Health Association, says Medicaid expansion would shore up hospital finances and help patients, but numerous other problems, including the downcoding of emergency room visits by insurance companies and Mississippi’s lack of a universal credentialing system for doctors, have contributed to the crisis.

Hardin, the Houston coach, says a volunteer athletic trainer who attends most of the high school’s live sporting events, sprung into action when William collapsed. But Hardin still thinks about the ways William’s life could have been saved, and fears for future emergencies involving Houston athletes. “What if something else happens?” he says. “What could’ve been different that day if we could have taken him to the emergency room a mile, five miles down the road?”

As schools, hospitals, and other institutions reel from a lack of public investment, legislators and former Gov. Phil Bryant have filled the state’s rainy day fund to its highest level ever. In 2016, they passed the largest tax break in Mississippi history.

Football has been used as a public relations tool for the state. Gov. Bryant’s attachment to the sport is so well known that he has appeared as a guest analyst on the SEC Network. He routinely attends college football games. When Jeremiah Williams was in the hospital after suffering his neck injury, Bryant implored his Twitter followers to pray for the student-athlete. Months later, Bryant signed an education budget that was $200 million lower than the state is obligated to provide under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The Greenville district’s shortfall for the year was $2 million below the mandated funding level and its budget was $1.8 million below what it received the previous fiscal year.

Anderson-Smith doesn’t blame football for her son’s death. She wanted to talk to SB Nation in part to raise awareness about the danger of missed diagnoses of blood clots among children.

William is buried in a cemetery located on 500-plus acres of family land on Houston’s outskirts. Before William died, he roamed the countryside, criss-crossing trails on a blue Polaris ATV that his mother and stepfather had recently bought him. On Sundays at Missionary Baptist Church, William was an usher and sang in the top row of the choir, fourth spot from the left. He was fearless: The family heard stories of how he stood up for kids who were bullied.

In the last 17 months, life without William hasn’t gotten easier for William’s mother and stepfather. Smith thinks about his son when he’s behind the wheel of his truck, driving alone. Weeks before William died, they went to Abilene, Texas, on their first trip together. Anderson-Smith thinks about William all the time — when she’s cooking, when she’s buying home freshener products because he always wanted the house to smell good. He was the baby of the family for about 10 years, until his younger sister, Madison, came along. “My oldest daughter would always say, ‘he’s so spoiled,’” Anderson-Smith says. “I’d say, ‘but you know he’s the baby.’ And you look at it now I got to spoil him because he didn’t get to stay here as long.”

A few months ago, Anderson-Smith spotted “Share a Coke” bottles featuring the University of Alabama logo, her son’s favorite college team, and with the names William and Anderson. She bought the bottles with both names and set them up in his room near his PlayStation 4 and Houston High School uniform.

In the weeks after Jeremiah’s death, Lashona Williams replayed a gut-wrenching conversation they had earlier in the season when she questioned whether he was tackling too much with his head. “He was like, ‘Momma, I’m tackling right. I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing,’” Williams says.

According to Hinton, the MHSAA has encouraged football coaches to take courses on tackling techniques but does not require certification as other states do, like Texas. The coaching staff at the private Washington School in Greenville recently attended a rugby-style tackling clinic in Alabama that featured lessons from Seattle Seahawks staff. The coaches at the grade school level at Washington Day are closely supervised by the high school staff and teach the same techniques. Those kinds of tackling lessons — that emphasize keeping the head up and out of the way during tackles — are missing for many young children in the Delta, Gideon says. When they get to high school, they often face a curve in learning how to properly tackle. Gideon says Jeremiah “had more knowledge than anyone on the team.”

When Jeremiah’s teammates and their parents expressed the possibility of leaving the game after her son’s death, Williams says she told them to keep playing. Almost all the players in Jeremiah’s class returned for a 2019 season that featured the highest attendance and community support in years, as well as new helmets and uniforms purchased by the school.

Greenville had bigger concerns than safety on its football field. Three weeks before Jeremiah’s death, another child, a 15-year-old Greenville High School student, had been gunned down while riding a bike. And two weeks after his death, a 17-year-old was found fatally shot in a home on a Saturday morning. Between random violence, drug-related violence and accidents, so many Greenville High School students died during Jeremiah’s time as a student that administrators can’t give an exact count off the top of their heads. They say it was between 10 and 12.

“It hurt to the core to lose my child,” Williams says. “But it’s a different hurt than his life being taken by a gun.”

In Byhalia, at a memorial assembly for Dennis Mitchell reported on by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, his sister Kiara Mitchell said the fact he died playing the game he loved hurt less than another frightening possibility: “I’ve told his football team that. I wanted that to get to them because that’s how this is helping me get through this situation. There wasn’t no other way. It wasn’t violent, it wasn’t in the streets. That’s why it sits well for me.”

On a Friday night in late September, Williams is back at Greenville’s stadium for the team’s game against Murrah High School. Her seat is behind the home bench, surrounded by family and friends, but she stands on her feet for much of the game. She stomps in disapproval at penalties against Greenville High. When a player tweaks an ankle, she draws closer to the bench to ask how he is doing.

Greenville rushes out to an early lead, but Murrah storms back in the fourth quarter. Trailing, 14-9, Murrah has the ball in the red zone and appears poised to score. But Greenville’s defense stuffs the running back behind the line of scrimmage. The next play is a sack. Then, with about 10 seconds left, Murrah’s quarterback apparently means to spike the football but instead kneels. The clock runs out.

Williams hustles down the bleachers and onto the patchy green field for the celebration. The players rush toward her, and she hugs as many as four at a time. Many of the boys spent 2018 Thanksgiving and 2019 Mother’s Day with her. At the season opener, they pronounced her captain, and she led them onto the field while wearing a No. 1 jersey. Getting back to the games required prayer and counseling from her pastor, but Williams decided she wanted to provide support, too. “I feel like it’s my duty as Jeremiah’s mom to walk the walk with them,” she says. “They were there. They’re damaged as well. It wasn’t just me and my kids or sisters, aunts, brothers. Those kids were there. They witnessed all that.

“I pray daily for them and not just them but for football players all over the world to just be safe.”

Twenty minutes later, after the fans have returned to their cars and the players to the locker room, Williams is one of the last to leave. She walks with her sister through a chain-link gate that is adjacent to several homemade signs decorated by students. Most are the usual sort seen at football games nationwide: “Push ‘Em, Sack ‘Em, Attack ‘Em” and “It’s Tackle Time.”

One sign is a reminder of the tragic losses Williams and other mothers endure every year from football. It says, “Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust.”