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Published in Alumni Publications on January 01, 2012
East Rankin Academy hosts the Copiah County Colonels on Oct. 27 in Pelahatchie.
East Rankin Academy hosts the Copiah County Colonels on Oct. 27 in Pelahatchie.

Friday Night Lights

By Matt Westerfield

From August through November, Friday nights in Mississippi are all about football. Encompassing far more than just the young athletes on the gridiron, high school football is part of the state’s cultural fabric, interweaving related traditions of cheerleaders, marching bands, booster clubs and homecoming kings and queens. But in addition to engaging football players and fans in a healthy spirit of competition, the game itself takes a physical toll on those teenagers who take the field.

Dr. Brent Smith and athletic trainer Kellie Abendschoen examine Leake Central High School quarterback B.J. Crockett during halftime in a game against Kosciusko in October.
Dr. Brent Smith and athletic trainer Kellie Abendschoen examine Leake Central High School quarterback B.J. Crockett during halftime in a game against Kosciusko in October.

Injuries are as much a part of the game as pads, athletic tape and Gatorade. Keeping young athletes healthy is a job many family physicians in small towns around the state consider a civic duty and a chance to be more involved with their community. Whether it’s delivering on-field treatment when injuries occur, or simply providing backup for a team’s athletic trainer, these doctors have made the commitment to take their skills beyond the clinic.

“Every time I go to a large town, I swear I won’t drive back through,” said Dr. Wade Dowell, a native of Moorehead whose small-town roots run deep. A family physician with Indianola Family Medical Group, Dowell has been volunteering his services to the Indianola Academy football team since 1985.

The Indianola Academy Colonels ended their season with a 36-32 loss to Carroll Academy on Oct. 28, cancelling out their playoff hopes. They finished the season with a 4-6 record.

“We blew a coverage with 34 seconds left in the game,” Dowell said. “We’d probably have lost in the first round anyway.”

This season, he said, the football team was short on seniors and on size.

“It’s one of the smallest teams I’ve seen in 20 years,” he said. “But our school is shrinking. There were 105 students in my class when I graduated; now there are about 40 seniors. So we have a numbers problem.”

In fact, as is common with smaller schools, the Colonels often pull double duty, playing offense and defense. Still, Dowell says they were fortunate to get through the season with few serious injuries.

“We had one concussion, two burners and a couple of shoulder injuries.”

A “burner,” he explained, is what’s commonly known as a cervical strain. When a player makes a tackle or takes a hit that stretches his neck, the cervical nerve cords can get strained or sprained.

“It’s temporary. Usually they recover in a day or two and can play next week,” he said.

Dowell grew up in Moorhead, only about seven miles away, and graduated from Indianola Academy in 1974. He played offensive lineman and defensive end in high school as well as at Ole Miss, where he earned his undergrad.

As a first-grader, Dowell was in a car accident that put him in the hospital for a couple of weeks. The experience remained with him throughout his football career and ultimately inspired him to go to medical school. He graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1982, where he also completed residency training in family medicine. But he couldn’t stay away from Indianola long.

“I just wanted to live in a small town,” he said. “I liked the variety of problems you face in primary care.”

It wasn’t long after joining the group practice in Indianola that he took over assisting the football team from a senior partner who’d been volunteering for years. Since then, every season Dowell attends most games and some of the practices. He helps treat and tape injuries on the sidelines and at halftime, and if any players suffer serious injuries, he’ll meet them at the hospital after the game.

“A lot of small schools don’t have the luxury of a team physician, and I’d say half the injuries I’ve treated have been on the opposing team,” Dowell said. “There’s kind of a network of family doctors who work with teams so we help each other out.”

Unlike some larger schools, Indianola does not have an athletic trainer at its disposal, although an athletic trainer from a nearby community college sometimes helps out. Then there’s his nurse, Angela Massey.

“My nurse went to a summer training camp at Ole Miss and learned how to tape ankles and that sort of thing, so she helps out, too.”
Dowell hasn’t just been a sideline physician for 20 years; he’s held the playbook, too.

“I was a Pee Wee coach for six or seven years, beginning when my twin sons Britt and Matt were in the 5th grade. And we did well,” he said proudly. “I think we only lost three or four games in six years. It was pretty nifty to follow those kids throughout their high school careers.”

Dowell said he helped launch an independent booster club in 1987 and has served as its president, helping raise funds to improve the program. Since then, they have provided for a new field house, replaced the locker rooms, added a weight room and replaced the lights on the football field.

“We spent up to $600,000 above and beyond what the school had in expenditures,” he said.

Family practice is becoming something of a family tradition for the Dowells. His youngest son, Chad, and Chad’s wife Kelsea are enrolled in the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine program at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, and both have signed contracts to come back to practice at the Indianola clinic.

“It’s just rewarding for any family practice physician in a small town to be involved with student athletics,” he said. “I have delivered some of these kids and treated them all their lives.”

On-the-field training

Dr. Chris Boston with student athlete at East Rankin Academy in October with student.
Dr. Chris Boston with student athlete at East Rankin Academy in October with student.

Dr. Brent Smith is a little too young to have seen infants he’s treated grow big enough to strap on shoulder pads. But, like Dowell, he’s carried his gridiron memories into the health-care profession. Smith is in his third year of residency training in family medicine at UMMC and volunteers as a team physician for high school sports teams.

After playing offensive lineman at Cleveland High School in the Mississippi Delta, where he was All-State his senior year, Smith decided to hang up his cleats after sitting out his first fall season at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas with a back injury. He worked for the team as a student assistant throughout college to help pay for school.

“The chances of making it through four years of high school football and four years of college football without having to have surgery for something are pretty slim,” he said while standing on the sidelines of a game at Leake Central High School. “There’s a huge difference between high school and college football.”

It’s the middle of October, and Smith is waiting for the game to kick off on a cool night in Carthage, Miss. Unlike Dowell, Smith isn’t attached to a particular team. He’s assigned a game to cover each Friday by University Sports Medicine.

This week, it’s the Leake Central Gators in their matchup with the Kosciusko Whippets. The Gators also have an athletic trainer. Kellie Abendschoen, also with University Sports Medicine, has spent all season with the team. For that reason, Smith explains he’s primarily there for back up.

“We really try to keep them from hurting themselves any worse or developing permanent injury,” he said.

This season, the Gators have had three elbow dislocations and some knee injuries.

“When I was growing up, if I had an injury I had to drive two hours just to get it seen. It’s a big thing to have someone here just to be able to get an evaluation,” Smith said.

Although it’s a small, rural school, the Leake Central Gators take the field with the energy level of a championship matchup. The game is light on injuries. At halftime, a Kosy Whippet receiver tries to run a pass in for a touchdown but gets tackled just before reaching the end zone. He’s slow getting up and limps to the sideline. Although the player is receiving treatment from the Whippets’ team physician, Smith walks around the field to check on him. The game resumes, and Smith returns a few minutes later. He says the player’s OK, he just “popped a hamstring.”

At halftime, he and Kellie examine an ankle sprain — one of the most common injuries they see — and a young lineman complaining of a pain in his lower back. Fearing that it could be a disc problem, they recommend to the player’s father he sit out the rest of the game.

Smith, who was elected to a one-year term of the board of directors of the National Congress of Family Medicine Residents in September, will begin a Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship next year. Eventually, he says he’d like to practice in his hometown and work with his high school’s team.

“That’s real community medicine because those doctors are volunteering their time. And it’s a big time commitment,” he said. “These doctors are a big part of the community and a big part of keeping their kids healthy.”

In the end, the Gators won a close game, edging out the Whippets, 39-32.

Opinions among the state’s family practitioners are mixed as to whether the game is significantly safer than it used to be.

“There were probably more leg injuries back in the ’60s and ’70s because of the blocking rules,” said Dowell. “All blocks have been outlawed below the waist. It’s a safer game now.”

In fact, 35 years ago, players were commonly trained to tackle and block by spearing their helmets into their opponents’ numbers. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, that type of helmet-to-numbers tackling and blocking unnecessarily put players at risk for head and neck injuries. In 1968, for instance, such maneuvers were the direct cause of 36 fatalities and 30 permanent paralysis injuries among high school and college football players, they showed.

Since 1976, helmet-to-numbers hitting has been prohibited, and now fatalities directly related to head and neck injuries are very rare. Instead, Smith says, fatalities in high school football are usually related to an undiagnosed heart problem, such as arrhythmia.

In early September, a junior at D’Iberville High School collapsed during a game and soon after was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The Jackson County coroner attributed the death to an acute cardiac event. The season saw at least eight high school football deaths nationwide.

Although the D’Iberville player collapsed after taking a hit on a block, there was no apparent injury that led to his death. Still, closely watching every play can make a huge difference when injuries do occur, said Dr. Chris Boston, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery.

“That’s why it’s important to keep your eyes on the game because if you can see it happen, you can learn a lot about the mechanism of the injury,” he said. “If you don’t see it happen, all you have to go on is what the player tells you.”

Boston kept his eyes glued to every play from the sidelines of a matchup between the East Rankin Academy Patriots and the Copiah County Colonels in late October. The Patriot players were noticeably calmer than the high-intensity Gators of Leake Central earlier in the month.

When asked if the size of the players and intensity level of the game had any correlation to injuries, Boston considered carefully while watching another play.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “There hasn’t been a big difference between the schools I’ve covered and injury risks. Except that bigger schools have more players, so there are more players at risk.”

Boston, who grew up in Bay St. Louis, graduated from UMMC in 2003, where he also completed a family medicine residency in 2006. He followed that up with a year-long sports medicine fellowship at the University of Kentucky and was a team physician for the university.

“I’ve got three SEC schools under my belt,” Boston said jokingly (he got his undergrad at Louisiana State University). “I need to take night school at MSU or something.”

Like Smith, Boston is assigned to a different team each Friday night. The East Rankin Academy game in Pelahatchie is free of major injuries, although at one point, Patriots quarterback Jacob Weldon jogged to the sideline in pain.

After checking him out, Boston said the QB would be all right.

“He thought he strained a muscle. He took a hit in the side.”

A lifelong sports fanatic, Boston was drawn to family medicine because it gets you out in the community and gives you a chance to really get to know people.

“I always just wanted to help people and use my mind for what God gave it to me for. Putting sports into it is just putting two loves together,” he said. “I figured it’d be a job where I could enjoy what I’m doing.”

This season, Boston says he’s treated knee injuries, ankle sprains, elbow hyperextensions and two concussions.

“The most common time for injuries is the punt return because you’ve got players running at each other at full speed,” he said.

In recent years, the risks and long-term impact of concussions has been commanding more scrutiny. A study released last year by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons showed that high school athletes are four times more likely to suffer a concussion today than they were ten years ago.

Smith says the most likely reason behind that spike is that health-care experts are more aware of the symptoms and consequences and are simply looking harder.

The potential for repeat concussions is especially alarming because of “second-impact syndrome,” which is when a second concussion occurs shortly after an initial injury causing severe neurological damage.

“Each concussion makes the athlete more prone to the next, but each leaves some residual damage that doesn’t heal,” said Smith.

Educating athletes, coaches and parents on signs and symptoms is essential to curbing these types of injuries, Smith said. And the medical and athletic communities should lead a push for legislation to set guidelines on when a student can return to play.

“This has happened throughout the country over the last few years, and needs to happen in Mississippi soon,” he said.

Growing Pains

Dr. Eugene Wood remembers playing football at Moss Point High School more than five decades ago. By today’s standards, he says he wouldn’t be big enough to be the waterboy.

He also recalls that the team’s physician, Dr. James Thompson, was the same family doctor who removed his appendix.

“He was a role model for me and one of the reasons I decided to go into medicine,” said Wood, now semi-retired at 76-years-old.

Wood graduated from the Medical Center in 1959, a member of the School of Medicine’s first four-year class. After a general residency, he was practicing in southwest Jackson when Wingfield High School opened in 1966. He took on the role of team doctor for the new school.

“It was all cold turkey to us; there was no special training,” he said. “We just went out and took care of them.”

The school’s young team — sophomores for the most part — got off to a tragic start. Playing Gulfport East High School in only the second game of the season, Wood said a Wingfield sophomore named David Mills suffered a broken neck and died two weeks later. A week after that game, a young player for Gulfport East also suffered a cervical fracture and died the next day.

Wood says youth itself can make it more dangerous.

“With these young kids, their muscles aren’t very developed or hardened yet. A lot of their bones haven’t fused yet, so these tackles are dangerous,” he said. “It was a sad, sad thing.”

However, he believes things have improved to some extent.

“I think there’s more concern for safety now — better headgear and better equipment,” he said. “But it’s still a very dangerous game.”

That’s something Wood knows all too well. His son, Dr. Eugene (Greg) Wood III (Class of 1982), played high school football at Jackson Prep and suffered a broken neck during a game while playing QB for Baylor University in 1977. By sheer luck, the younger Wood’s spinal cord was not harmed, and he avoided paralysis. The younger Wood is now a spinal surgeon in the Jackson-metro area.

Even if deadly spinal cord injuries are much less common these days, the late summer heat will always be of great concern.

Since 1995, 35 high school football players have died from heat stroke nationwide, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, including four in 2010. That’s not counting the cases of heat exhaustion where the players recovered.

Wood said he began volunteering his time at Wingfield in an era when coaches resisted giving their players fluids during practice. Now, there are careful guidelines regarding hydration and rest.

In the early ’70s, Wood says he read about a powdered drink that researchers at the University of Florida were testing with the Florida Gators football team. Before the sports drink was ever bottled, Wood ordered the powder from out of state for his team and, “by all accounts, we were the first team in Jackson, if not all of Mississippi to drink Gatorade,” he said.

Wood said that despite the tragic note that started off the season of 1966, he has maintained a lifelong friendship with the father of David Mills, the Wingfield teenager who died from his football injury.

“It was a very enjoyable time in my life, taking care of those kids,” Wood said. “I’m still in touch with some of them, and some I still treat.”Dr. Eugene Wood remembers playing football at Moss Point High School more than five decades ago. By today’s standards, he says he wouldn’t be big enough to be the waterboy.

He also recalls that the team’s physician, Dr. James Thompson, was the same family doctor who removed his appendix.
“He was a role model for me and one of the reasons I decided to go into medicine,” said Wood, now semi-retired at 76-years-old.
Wood graduated from the Medical Center in 1959, a member of the School of Medicine’s first four-year class. After a general residency, he was practicing in southwest Jackson when Wingfield High School opened in 1966. He took on the role of team doctor for the new school.
“It was all cold turkey to us; there was no special training,” he said. “We just went out and took care of them.”

The school’s young team — sophomores for the most part — got off to a tragic start. Playing Gulfport East High School in only the second game of the season, Wood said a Wingfield sophomore named David Mills suffered a broken neck and died two weeks later. A week after that game, a young player for Gulfport East also suffered a cervical fracture and died the next day.

Wood says youth itself can make it more dangerous.

“With these young kids, their muscles aren’t very developed or hardened yet. A lot of their bones haven’t fused yet, so these tackles are dangerous,” he said. “It was a sad, sad thing.”

However, he believes things have improved to some extent.

“I think there’s more concern for safety now — better headgear and better equipment,” he said. “But it’s still a very dangerous game.”

That’s something Wood knows all too well. His son, Dr. Eugene (Greg) Wood III (Class of 1982), played high school football at Jackson Prep and suffered a broken neck during a game while playing QB for Baylor University in 1977. By sheer luck, the younger Wood’s spinal cord was not harmed, and he avoided paralysis. The younger Wood is now a spinal surgeon in the Jackson-metro area.

Even if deadly spinal cord injuries are much less common these days, the late summer heat will always be of great concern.

Since 1995, 35 high school football players have died from heat stroke nationwide, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, including four in 2010. That’s not counting the cases of heat exhaustion where the players recovered.

Wood said he began volunteering his time at Wingfield in an era when coaches resisted giving their players fluids during practice. Now, there are careful guidelines regarding hydration and rest.

In the early ’70s, Wood says he read about a powdered drink that researchers at the University of Florida were testing with the Florida Gators football team. Before the sports drink was ever bottled, Wood ordered the powder from out of state for his team and, “by all accounts, we were the first team in Jackson, if not all of Mississippi to drink Gatorade,” he said.

Wood said that despite the tragic note that started off the season of 1966, he has maintained a lifelong friendship with the father of David Mills, the Wingfield teenager who died from his football injury.

“It was a very enjoyable time in my life, taking care of those kids,” Wood said. “I’m still in touch with some of them, and some I still treat.”