Taking Care of the Boys

High school QB Kyle Heine broke his neck on the field. How well was he treated?

During an ordinary Saturday-night high-school football game last fall, Scarborough High School quarterback Kyle Heine came within a scalpel's stroke of living in a wheelchair.

After being sacked by the Kashmere defense, Heine, then a junior, struggled to his feet. A referee's whistle had blown the play dead. But a Kashmere defender swooped in late and, using the crown of his helmet (a highly illegal maneuver called spearing) crushed the quarterback into the ground. The play drew a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"Hell, can I still walk?" Heine asked himself as he stood up from the bone-jarring tackle. After wobbling around for a few moments, several teammates helped lay Heine back down.

While on the turf, Heine told the attending physician, Barton J. Kendrick, about the severe pain in his neck. After a brief examination, the doctor opted to walk Heine off the field -- a medical mistake if serious neck injury is suspected.

In fact, Heine's neck had been broken. In Heine's opinion, it's a minor miracle that he escaped paralysis -- Kendrick's on-field exam was flawed in a number of aspects.

"One, when he pulled me up," says Heine. "Two, when he walked me off. Three, when he sat me down on the bench -- my head was just sitting there, swaying. Four when they laid me down. And then five, whenever they pulled the helmet off."

Kendrick later told the Chronicle that Heine didn't exhibit the signs typical of neck injury. In the doctor's opinion, the standard preventative back-board -- used to immobilize, then carry players off the field -- was not needed.

Kendrick did not respond last week to phone calls from the Press.
Fortunately, after surgery and a three-month convalescence, Heine more than walked again. Last spring, as catcher for Scarborough's baseball team, he got an honorable mention in the 20-4A all-district selection.

Other young athletes around the country haven't been as lucky. Last year in the United States at least four high-school football players suffered permanent damage to the cervical cord. They were paralyzed. Another three incurred serious brain damage. Ten died, either directly or indirectly, from playing high-school football. Hundreds of thousands sustained injuries serious enough to remove them from part -- or all -- of a game.

Football is a sport with professional heroes named Hacksaw, Ironhead, Moose and Doctor Death. Liability labels on football helmets warn players not to illegally "butt, ram or spear" opponents, but it is widely believed that many elementary and high-school coaches continue to teach such tactics.

Heine blames no one for his injury. Nevertheless, the alleged mishandling of the incident raises questions about the safety of high-school football in the Houston Independent School District.

All the major public school districts around Houston -- Spring Branch, Alief, Katy, Klein, Alvin, Aldine, Galena Park, Deer Park, Cypress-Fairbanks, Clear Creek and Pasadena -- have placed a certified athletic trainer at each of their high-school campuses. Spring Branch and Alvin employ two at each.

The majority of Texas's big-city districts -- Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi Ñ maintain at least one trainer at each high school. Only Dallas ISD and HISD do not.

For its 21 high schools, HISD has six full-time trainers: Six trainers for 10,000 athletes, of whom 4,000 play football. One of the six is always present during HISD home football games -- a trainer was present on the night of Heine's injury. However, no HISD trainers travel with the teams or attend practices.

No trainer could have diagnosed Heine's broken neck. No trainer could have overruled a doctorÕs decision. But many sports physicians say a campus-based trainer would have known the boy better, may have had a sense of his sincerity, his predilections for melodrama, his propensity to feign his way through pain.

"When you have your own trainer at your own school, it'd be more of a personal thing," says Heine. "You'd be close if something happened. You would think more about the person."

Ron Cunningham, a representative of the North Carolina-based National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), agrees: "Athletic trainers often know more than the physician does, and I'm talking about right there on the playing field."

If Heine's injury had occurred at an HISD practice -- where 60 percent of sports-related injuries take place -- there would have been no medically savvy personnel on hand.

"There's an immediate need for someone to go out there and see to the injury," says Cunningham.

Heine's injury raises another issue regarding the need for on-site athletic trainers: long-term rehabilitation. Heine has undergone all of 30 minutes of rehab since the injury. Because his neck no longer hurts, Heine believes that his recovery is complete. He continues to play catcher for Scarborough's baseball team, and his coaches regard him as one of the area's top college prospects.

Though his athletic future appears rosy, no medical expert informed Heine about the possibility of future risk. A certified trainer would have known that a blue-chip athlete ought to undergo rehab -- that he ought to increase his neck's range of motion and strengthen the surrounding muscles.

"The athletic trainer would be the conduit through [which] the physician [reaches] this young man," says the NATA's Cunningham. "If an athletic trainer feels that there is a student that he needs to be consulted about, he's going to pick up the phone."

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