A former McGill-Toolen football player is suing the school, its coaching staff and the Archdiocese of Mobile over “traumatic brain injury” he claims was caused by injuries sustained during his time as a defensive back.
Eric Williams, who graduated last year, claims coaches, athletic trainers and school administrators were negligent in their handling of a head injury he sustained during spring training in 2015. In short, Williams’ attorneys say he was allowed to continue practicing even though he’d shown clear signs of a concussion.
Williams says he was running practice drills under the direction of linebackers coach Carl Jackson on May 7, 2015, when he “suffered several blows to the head” and began exhibiting “signs of a concussion” that included a headache and stronger than usual emotional reactions.
Also named in the lawsuit is Encore Rehabilitation, which facilitates McGill’s athletic training program and employees athletic trainer Drew Garner. Williams says he was evaluated by Garner after practice and met with Jackson at his home to discuss his health on the day his head injury occurred.
However, he claims neither sent him to a doctor for an assessment of his symptoms.
“[He] was permitted to continue to participate in football practice without any restrictions,” the complaint claims. “At no point did any one of the defendants receive a written clearance for [Williams] to return to play from a licensed physician.”
According to the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) concussion policy, “any health care professional or AHSAA certified coach may identify concussion signs, symptoms or behaviors of a student athlete during any type of athletic activity,” which includes team practices and training.
If any of those symptoms are recognized, the policy dictates the affected student stop playing immediately.
“Any student-athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion shall be removed from the contest and shall not return that day,” it reads. “Following the day the concussion symptoms occur, the student-athlete may return to practice or play only after a medical release has been issued by a medical doctor.”
However, a few days after his initial injury, Williams claims he was allowed to participate in another practice and ordered by Jackson to go through the tackling drills he’d been injured performing days before. The complaint states that during those drills, “[Williams] suffered several blows to the head, and lost consciousness.”
William’s medical condition is said to have deteriorated between the first practice, which was on a Thursday, and a second practice that following Monday. He never saw a physician during that time, according to the lawsuit. At the hospital, Williams required surgery due to a subdural hematoma.
As is common in these types of lawsuits, Williams’ attorney, Craig L. Lowell, is also targeting anyone and everyone tasked with supervising McGill’s coaching staff. So far, the defendants named in the lawsuit include Jackson, Garner and Encore Rehabilitation, but also head football coach Earnest Hill, his predecessor Caleb Ross, McGill Athletic Director Bill Griffin, Principal Michelle Haas and the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile.
From the top down, Lowell claims, negligent training, supervision and enforcement caused Williams to suffer a traumatic brain injury as well as “permanent physical, emotional, neurological and cognitive deficits.”
Over the last few years, concerns have grown about football players — especially those in youth and high school leagues — developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) from repetitive brain trauma. The same concerns have also led to a few players making high-profile exits from the National Football League (NFL).
Just this April, a former football player in California was awarded $7.1 million in a lawsuit brought against his high school school due to the coaching staff’s failure to correctly diagnose a concussion in a game he played in at age 14. Part of that case was based on those same coaches’ failure to complete mandated concussion training.
In Alabama, the AHSAA requires all certified coaches to complete an online course to learn how to identify concussions and the procedures to follow when concussion symptoms are recognized. While that would seem to include McGill’s coaching staff, the school so far has declined to comment on this matter in print.
Reached by Lagniappe, Gwendolyn Byrd, executive director for Catholic education for the Archdiocese, said: “It is our policy not to discuss the personal issues of students nor to comment on legal proceedings.” Similarly, messages sent to Lowell seeking comment on Williams’ lawsuit have not yet received a response.
However, a 2014 video uploaded by McGill’s athletic department discusses, in detail, how the private school handles concussions. In an episode of “In the Arena with Bill Griffin,” Griffin and Garner both discuss how concussions occur, how they’re recognized and how McGill’s staff is supposed to respond to them.
Garner said signs of a possible concussion include things like “dizziness, complaining of nausea, light sensitivity and obviously, a headache.” He also said student athletes exhibiting any of those types of symptoms are not allowed to return to field of play until they’ve been cleared by a medical doctor.
“The way we treat it, we would first sit the person out. That’s the first thing. We’re going to sit them out as long as they have any of these symptoms, and you can’t return to play in the state of Alabama without being cleared by a physician,” Garner said. “We’re not going to put you back in until you’re cleared by a physician.”
Griffin said coaches at McGill and throughout the state are taught the same, adding that the responsibility for recognizing students showing concussion systems falls on coaches as much as athletic trainers and physicians.
“Winning at McGill-Toolen is very important, but the safety of athletes is in the forefront. Concussions don’t just happen in football, they can happen in every single sport we have,” Griffin said. “That’s why every athlete and every coach has to be aware of the signs and symptoms of concussions.”