Wait till next year?

When I was captain of the Westfield Wolverines varsity football team in the fall of 2005, Friday was my favorite day of the week. Not because it was the beginning of the weekend, but because the lights would shine over the football field in the evening and I, in their glow, would get to play a game that I loved for a community and school that I loved and I would get to do it with teammates that I loved as brothers.

This is a joy that will no longer be felt by the Westfield-Brocton team for the remainder of the fall. The “Friday Night Lights” will remain turned off – possibly forever. The reasons why need to be examined by a critical eye and some failures by the WACS bureaucracy need to be highlighted.

Westfield Superintendent David Davison is not the only school official to claim the players no longer wanted to play. At the board meeting in which the cancellation was made official, board member Brenda Backus claimed to have received personal feedback that suggested the players no longer wanted to play. Seeing as she does not have any children on the team’s roster, it can easily be assumed that the feedback she received was secondhand. At that same board meeting, Westfield resident and father of two former Wolverines, Barry Underwood, spoke out against the cancellation and believed it was not in the players’ best interests. He said, “If (the players) did tell you that they were willing to cancel their season, they’re probably not telling the truth,” echoing my own doubtful assumptions.

To be positive of my beliefs, I reached out to other current and former Wolverines and the feedback was unanimous. Fellow former captain Justin Matos described the decision as “ridiculous” and said “Damon left it all out on the field and so should his teammates.” Mike Okerlund, who donned the Wolverine blue less than a year ago, said “They shouldn’t have canceled the season. … The players should be able to go out there and play for Damon.” No current players were available for comment at the time this piece was written, but feedback can be found in previous publications.

Team captain Kyle Witmer was quoted in The Buffalo News prior to the cancellation of the season as having said, “It’s going to be hard, but we’re going to get through it together. If we still get to play, I’m going to go out and play my hardest and play the way (Damon) would have played.” Those are not the words of a man who wants to quit.

Perhaps the most notable feedback received was that of Dwight Damcott, former star defensive end and offensive tackle for the Wolverines. Now a reservist in the Marine Corps, he knows what it’s like to lose a close friend and teammate – he lost a member of his unit to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. On whether he would have wanted to end the season, he said, “I don’t think I would want to quit the season, but I know it’s hard to keep going after losing a friend. They have to understand that it’s a freak accident and if the proper steps are taken to ensure the safety of the players, I’d be fine with playing again.”

That brings us to the next issue mentioned with the cancellation: player safety. The aforementioned Backus also said, “If the players are not safe, then I agree wholeheartedly with this recommendation.” Now, the question looms as to why a member of the board thinks the players are not safe.

As stated by Damcott, the death of Damon Janes was a freak accident. Per a research study by the University of North Carolina, there have been 25 fatal injuries in high school football in the last decade. The same study reported that 1.1 million teenagers played high school football in 2012. If we take that number as the rough average participation in each of the last 10 years, that means fatal injuries happen to 0.00023 percent of teenagers who play high school football. It needs to be noted that this math is not an attempt to downplay the tragic death of Janes – one fatal injury is too many and research into ways to make the game safer needs to continue.

In similar commentary on the numbers game of football injuries, the Director of the Sports Concussion Center at Excelsior Orthopaedics in Amherst Dr. Jason M. Matuszak, who also officiates games in Western New York, was quoted in The Buffalo News saying “We actually do see a lot of injuries come in from sports of all kinds. Football’s a big one, obviously, because of the nature of the sport, the collisions, and the number of people who play.” He also noted that cheerleading actually has the highest rate of catastrophic injuries among youth sports and that young football players are more likely to be hurt traveling to, or from, games than playing in them.

If player safety is truly the cause of the canceled season, then the superintendent and the parents he spoke with and the board all suffered an irrational knee-jerk reaction born out of emotions brought on by a tragedy. However, one would be hard-pressed to find another program that canceled their season in the wake of a tragedy and this may raise questions. Creekside High in Georgia played on after losing junior defensive back De’Antre Turman, who died of fractured vertebrae in his upper spinal cord just weeks prior to the passing of Damon Janes.

It is likely that there is more to the “player safety” excuse for canceling the season than is being said. In reaching out to fellow players, there is some speculation that a helmet was not properly fitted and the pads on the inside were not inflated to fit his head because he was not wearing his usual helmet. The same person also claimed that Janes may have suffered a concussion prior to the hit that went ignored and improperly treated.

However, no one close enough to the team was available to verify the validity of the claims, so it remains hearsay for the time being, but it would explain why the players do not feel safe and would explain why so few Westfield officials are willing to speak publicly on the issue – they may be under an attorney’s orders to keep their lips sealed. When speaking to Okerlund, I asked if he could get me in touch with any current players, seeing as I was having such a hard time contacting them. He confirmed my fears: he said, “(Coach Bob) North told them all not to talk.”

Macalum Buchanan, a teammate who was eyewitness to the collision, confirmed the play was a “clean hit.” This could lead to the conclusion that faulty equipment was to blame.

Even if it is revealed through investigation there was nothing wrong with Janes’ helmet, there is still the issue of the Westfield board neglecting to appropriate enough of the budget to updating the team equipment. I know from personal experience that the helmets are Riddell Revolution model, which hit the market in 2002. Given the several controversies surrounding concussions in the last decade, Riddell has been hard at work developing even more concussion-preventing technologies, including a whole new model of helmet released in 2011 – the Riddell 360. This has gone entirely ignored by the WACS board when they assemble the school budget every year.

Even the Westfield Goldenhawks, the local modified football team, have Riddell’s new model. Why the board never found it pertinent to buy the varsity and jayvee. teams the newer models is an immense conundrum. Okerlund, when commenting on his disagreement with the decision to cancel the season, also expressed that he feels the school does not care about any of the sports programs. He said, “They are more worried about buying clocks when they need to put more money into our sports programs and actually have (the equipment) fitted correctly. Also I feel that we need an athletic trainer on the sideline for every game.”

Okerlund makes a good point. A licensed athletic trainer on the sidelines would be a valuable asset for any injury situation and may have even saved the life of Damon Janes. However, updating old equipment and hiring an athletic trainer is a venture that the board would likely deem too expensive and not worth the cost, so much so that they are more likely to end football altogether even without considering that added cost. The initial claim is that football is gone for the fall. Given the recent history of incompetence, corruption, nepotism, and cowardice displayed by the Westfield bureaucracy in the last 10 years, I do not trust the board to believe that the Wolverines will ever field a football team again. I hope I’m wrong. The superintendent and the board will have done the players more harm than good.

Football is arguably the most misunderstood of all sports. Some think it is a sport about big hits, about senseless violence, about brutes fighting over pigskin. They are all wrong. Football is about love. It is a sport that reveals character, especially at young ages. It presents youth with adversity and makes them work as a team to overcome it and grow together. There is no greater adversity than losing a teammate, but it also presents an opportunity to reveal deeper character, nurture deeper bonds, and heal together as a family. When Brett Smith died wearing his blue and white uniform in 1975, the Wolverines did not stop playing. The team fought on for him, including his younger brother, who broke the school rushing record shortly after the tragedy. My team played for Brett Smith as well. We did not know him and did not need to: he was a Wolverine.

The Westfield Wolverines are a proud group of players with heart and they play for each other. If given the proper opportunity, the current batch of Wolverines would have likely done the same for Damon Janes. It’s what Damon would have wanted. Janes himself was famous for exclaiming “Giving up is simply not an option,” so much so that it was painted on signs in Brocton following his hospitalization. He will get along great with Vince Lombardi in heaven, who once said, “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.”

Andre La Crout, former Westfield resident, lives in Rochester.