The year was 1893 and a Navy football player named Joseph ”Bull” Reeves was warned by his doctor that he would suffer “instant insanity” or death if he suffered another head injury.
Reeves responded by going to an Annapolis shoemaker. The result was the leather headpiece that Reeves wore as the world’s first football helmet during the Army Navy game of 1893. He survived to become an admiral known as the Father of Carrier Aviation.
In the meantime, football helmets evolved in an attempt to minimize the damage that players suffered when they inevitably received blows to the head. But however advanced the design and materials, however much cushioning was added, there was no way to eliminate the danger entirely.
That truth was sadly affirmed yet again in October of 2012, when 17-year-old star running back Will McKamey of Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee collapsed during the fourth quarter of an away game. He was airlifted to a hospital in Charlotte, where it was determined that he was suffering a brain bleed as well as swelling of the brain.
The Grace Christian coach was all the more shaken because he was Will’s father. Coach Randy McKamey was greatly relieved to report that his son remained responsive and that a second brain scan indicated that there would be no need for surgery.
“He’s a fighter,” the elder McKamey was reported saying. “As much as he is on the field, he’ll fight up there in that room.”
McKamey had already been acutely aware of the danger of head injury in football. He had been happy to announce earlier in 2012 that the hazard had been further reduced for home games by a new cushiony playing surface.
“The kids love it. My son Will got on there and worked on some drills and said, ‘Dad, it’s so different,’” the elder McKamey told the press. “It’s very absorbent. We like that concussions [are] almost to zero on ground contact. It’s unbelievable how soft it is.”
The 2012 football season was now over for the younger McKamey. His mother acknowledged in a text-messaged statement that this had been hard for her son to accept.
"Although we are just thankful for the health and healing he has already received, to a 17 year old this is hard to understand,” Kara McKamey said. “Please pray for peace for him.” She added, “It’s a very serious brain injury but God has been faithful and he should make a full recovery.”
She thanked the family’s many supporters: “Randy and I feel so overwhelmed and unworthy of the outpouring of support and prayer from all of you. We are truly grateful and we love you all.”
The big question was whether Will would be able to play in the future. He was a top college prospect and the local paper had reported that he had committed to the Navy. Over the months that followed, McKamey was examined by four neurosurgeons and underwent a half dozen scans. He was cleared to resume playing just as he proceeded from high school to the Naval Academy.
During a practice on Saturday, the now 19 year-old Will McKamey again collapsed. He was again airlifted to a hospital—this time the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He was again found to have brain swelling and a brain bleed. But this time he was unresponsive and the doctors said he needed emergency surgery.
“Not sure I have the strength to go through this again,” his father tweeted. “Will is in surgery to remove pressure from a hit sustained during Navy practice today.”
In a subsequent tweet, the elder McKamey said, “Will’s situation is still not good. Please pray harder than ever before for the healing.”
A mystery arose when the family issued a statement reporting that Will did not, in fact, seem to have suffered ‘'a bad hit or unusual or extreme contact'’ during the practice. ‘The Navy coaches have poured through the films of practice and seen nothing more than Will carrying the football normally, doing what he truly loves,” the statement read.
The possibility arose that his previous injury may have contributed to the present crisis. The Navy cited confidentiality requirements in declining to say whether the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board had required Will and his family to sign a waiver before he could play. They almost certainly would have signed. They now emphasized that neither they nor the Annapolis coaching staff had any reason to believe that Will had not been fit to for football.
“We obviously feel there is more going on in his brain than we could have ever detected. [We] want to be clear that [neither] the Navy football program nor us as parents would have ever allowed him to be in a dangerous situation.”
The family reported on Sunday that Will remained in a coma.
“There is no new news. We still have only small responses from Will. Our entire family appreciates each and every one that has reached out to us. The photos of Will, the support, the prayers, seeing everybody rally around us has been unbelievable. It amazes me how this one kid is touching so many… from coast to coast. Our God is using Will for a huge platform right now. I know many of you wish you could be here with us, but know that the Navy family has stepped in for our Knoxville family and they are providing an unbelievable support system. Pray for the Navy football players and coaches as well, they are all here and doing everything in their power to pull Will through.”
Late Tuesday, word came that Will had died despite everybody’s best efforts and prayers. If his death was the result of a football injury either past or present, as it seems to have been, he would not be the first college player to suffer the same fate at this same medical facility as a result of swelling of the brain.
Three years ago, 22-year-old Frostburg State University fullback Derek Sheely collapsed during a routine practice where he suffered no significant hits. He succumbed at the shock trauma center after a series of operations proved unable to stop the swelling.
Sheely had no prior hospitalizations with head trauma, but doctors wondered if he had suffered something called second impact syndrome, in which multiple hits over time culminating in a relatively minor one can suddenly result in massive brain swelling. The syndrome usually affects younger people whose brain tissue is still developing, which explains why a number of high school players die every year from head trauma while it remains rare among college players. The exact circumstances of Sheely’s death are presently the subject of a wrongful death law suit filed against the school by his family.
In the case of McKamey, the precipitating cause of death does not seem to have been determined. The grief that accompanies it is searingly clear in the Facebook message his mother posted on Wednesday.
“I know that we were all praying for a miracle, and we were able to see the miracle of Will entering heaven today. My friends please focus your prayers now on Randy and I and our immediate family as we deal with the upcoming days. We love you all and we are overcome with the way you rallied behind us. Will was able to change the spirit of a community, a school and a Navy football team…without really saying a word. He led a wonderful Christian life and I’m so thankful that God chose me to be his mother for 19 years! #livelikewill”
She suggested that her son will keep on with the game he loved even in the hereafter: “My dear friends and family, William Dean McKamey met his Lord and Savior this afternoon. There are no words to describe the pain our family feels right now. However we are rejoicing that Will is now on the fields of Heaven…running the football!”
If the Navy does indeed have a team on high, you can be sure that the players include a former midshipman who joined the eternal roster in 1948 at the age of 76. That would be Bull Reeves, the inventor of the football helmet, which made the game safer for him and evolved over more than a century to make it safer still for thousands of others.
Safer, but not safe enough.