A deadly condition that appears, most cruelly, to prey almost exclusively on young athletes: “second-impact syndrome.” Its signature is swelling – dramatic swelling, the brain pushing against not just the skull but sometimes down into the spinal column. Most doctors suspect the brain’s plumbing breaks, unleashing a flood of blood and fluid, caused – as its name suggests – not by one blow but two: first a malfunction and then a full rupture. The blows can be separated by seconds or by weeks. But much else – from why it occurs to why it seems to strike only young men – remains a mystery. [Note: that is not true. It just occurs far less frequently in women]
There’s no national governing body for the 1.1 million boys expected to play middle and high school football this season, no nationwide research of the game’s casualties. “When an airplane goes down, a group of experts are summoned to the site to figure out what happened, what went wrong, so it can be prevented in the future,” Cantu says. “We ought to treat all of the athletic deaths, especially those that we don’t fully understand, equally aggressively.” Of all the middle and high school boys who suited up in pads and helmets in the past three years, just seven died directly as a result of on-field injuries in 2015, five in 2014 and eight the year before, according to data compiled by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, largely culled from media reports. That’s an incidence rate of 0.58 per 100,000 athletes.