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Death of high school football player leads to fight for internal injury awareness

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Brian and Kathy Haugen stand near a photo of their son, Taylor Haugen. The Haugens have donated nearly 800 EvoShield HYBRIDPRO Protective Rib shirts (shown here) to young athletes since Taylor's death.Devon Ravine – Northwest Florida Daily News

While concussions and head injuries have been major concerns for football players for years, one Florida couple is seeking to draw attention to another threat to young players – internal injuries.

Five years ago today, Brian and Kathy Haugen’s 15-year-old son, Taylor, was playing as a wide receiver on his junior varsity football team at Niceville High School, in Niceville, Fla., when he was thrown a pass that flew slightly above his head. As he reached upward, stretching out his body, Taylor was hit with tackles from both front and back.

Doctors would later say the force of the impact was equivalent to a high speed car accident.

After the tackle, Taylor attempted to rejoin his team’s huddle but quickly collapsed on the sidelines. Tragically, the Haugen’s only son died later that day of severe internal injuries to his liver.

As a result of their loss, the Haugens are now determined to educate parents and athletes on the risks of internal injury in football – and the protective gear available for young players.

“Would you send your child on the football field without a helmet? Of course not,” Kathy told FoxNews.com. “That’s in the forefront right now, but this is not. But it’s very similar, in that it’s protecting vital organs.”

The Haugens refer to their campaign as the ‘third wave’ of football injury prevention. The first wave involved educating coaches and players on the dangers of dehydration and heat stroke – a campaign that resulted in the addition of hydration stations to the sidelines of every practice and game nationwide. The second wave: the fight to prevent concussions and head injuries among players.

“The third generation will be this internal injury, abdominal injury awareness,” Kathy said.

Intense short-term damage

Dr. Edward Metz Barksdale, division chief of pediatric surgery at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland estimates that large hospitals will see seven to 10 young players with severe internal injuries each year, while smaller hospitals will see anywhere from three to five.

“Major organs we see injuries to are the spleen, then the liver, then the kidney,” Barksdale said. “You would think statistically we’d see more liver because it’s larger, but the spleen is more fragile, and the liver is more protected by the rib cage. Hits in football are more to the side and to the flank.”

Though Barksdale said deaths due to internal injury in football players are rare, it’s important for coaches, family members and spectators to be aware of the risk of this type of injury after major tackles, in order to expedite treatment and prevent long term damage to internal organs.

“The important thing to recognize is that when your kid is a 155 pound, 6’1” wide receiver getting hit by a 230 pound linebacker and a 185 pound safety,  that combined force is a big deal,” Barksdale said.

Major acute risks involved in internal organ injuries include unrecognized bleeding and significant injury to the organ that causes it to experience long-term failure, according to Barksdale. Fortunately, most internal organs are able to recover if they are treated quickly. However, young athletes are at a higher risk for this type of injury than more mature players.

“What we know about the pediatric, teenage population is they have less muscle, less abdominal fat, so the distance between where force occurs and where organs are compressed against the spine is much less,” Barksdale said. “That is one of the factors that predisposes to significant injuries. That’s why in teens we see a much greater risk to injury in internal organs than men who have more muscle, stronger bones.”

Though ample studies have been done in recent years on the risks of head injuries in athletes, the Haugens say their fight to promote internal injury awareness has been hampered by a lack of research and awareness on the subject.

“People will say, ‘But it’s not very common.’ And we’ll say, ‘What? Fatality or the abdominal injuries?’ Concussions aren’t (always) fatal either,” Brian said. “But we realize now it’s a big deal. And I think we’ll realize later this is a big deal.”

While Barksdale noted that head injuries create more long-lasting damage, organ injuries present more short-term damage to patients.

“The brain is in a closed space, and nerve tissue doesn’t regenerate, so a concussion or brain injury has much more serious long-term effects – and we’re only beginning now to get a better idea (of that),” Barksdale said. “For organ injury, major damage will occur immediately, but our internal organs have the capacity to recover.”

The YESS program

In order to create awareness after Taylor’s death, the Haugens formed the Taylor Haugen Foundation’s Youth Equipment for Sports Safety (YESS) program.  

“The mission of the YESS program is we want to educate and equip middle and high school athletes with equipment commonly worn in the pros and college, but not known to middle and high school athletes and their parents,” Brian said.

As a part of this mission, the Haugens, along with Jacqueline Griffin, mother of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, have teamed up with EvoShield, creators of custom-molded body shields. This week, they are launching the #ProtectiveParent campaign, which seeks to educate parents and athletes about the protective measures they should be taking on the field.

According to Barksdale, who has two sons that play Division I football and another son that plays high school football, making high-impact sports like football, or even soccer, risk-free is nearly impossible.  However, taking appropriate safety and prevention measures could make a big difference in the risk of damage from internal injuries.

“It’s incumbent on us to make sure kids are trained with proper tackling techniques. We have a dynamic process of reassessing the game to make it safe,” Barksdale said. “We also need to look at protective garments, such as the Evoshield.  Though that will not protect against some of the hits, it will offer some degree of protection.”

In the past five years, the Taylor Haugen Foundation has also donated over 780 protective shirts to athletes across the country.

“We feel like if parents knew that this equipment was available, they’d make sure their kid wore it,” Brian said. “If we knew this was available, (Taylor) would have worn it.”

For more information on the #ProtectiveParents campaign, go to www.evoshield.com/protectiveparent

For more information on YESS and the Taylor Haugen Foundation go to taylorhaugen.org.