The death two weeks ago of Jon Walsh, a Robinson High School football player who collapsed on the first day of practice, was not the first of the season.
Less than a week earlier, a Winfield, W. Va., high school player had complained of cramps after practice. He died that night.
This past Tuesday in Bozeman, Mont., a player removed his helmet and lay down on the field after his team's second practice. He was dead when his coach reached him.
Wednesday, a 15-year-old collapsed during conditioning exercises while trying out for a high school team in Chula Vista, Calif. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died a short time later.
Robinson and Winfield high schools have outstanding programs. Ed Henry, the Robinson coach, is a well-respected coaching veteran of 31 years. The West Virginia school employs an athletic trainer, a luxury in these days of tight budgets.
The causes of the first three deaths are undetermined; the California youth was known to suffer from hypertension and his death was caused by a heart condition, according to the San Diego County coroner. The Montana player was asthmatic but both Walsh and the West Virginia player appeared extraordinarily fit. Clearly, good coaching and trainers, even mandatory safety regulations from the National Federation for State High Schools, aren't guarantees against football deaths.
Last year 13 high school football players died as a result of participation in football -- nine from injuries resulting from physical contact and four as a result of heat strokes or heart attacks, according to a survey by the American Football Coaches Association. More than 1.3 million youths played high school football during that year, according to the NFSHS.
Preseason physical examinations, NFSHS-enforced and required of all players at their families' expense, did not detect whatever claimed the lives of two East Coast football players already this season. In Maryland and Virginia, statewide standardized testing does not include such costly extras as electrocardiograms, which would reveal susceptibility to stress.
Jon Walsh had passed two physicals, the first six weeks ago before leaving for a month at a rigorous wrestling camp. The second was the evening before his death.
"We don't know what happened," said his mother, Carol Walsh, who is a nurse. "It was just his time to go."
"something like this will hang over football for a while," said Rich Cameron, the Whitman coach, who witnessed a temporarily paralyzing injury to one of his players six years ago. "But you have to pick up and go on. You can call practice for the next day. You can't go around protecting kids their whole lives."
In 1975, Greg Unb of Whitman suffered the most serious of recent area high school football injuries in a tackle that was expected to leave him paralyzed for life (he is now fully recovered). A combination of brush-up clinics, safety recommendations passed on from administrators and policies calling for rescue squads at games has prevented other serious injuries.
Washington area schools, safety-conscious as they are, are not standard-setters.
The move has been toward trainers, keen to aches and signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In West Virginia, for instance, where two seasons ago two football players died and a third was left a quadraplegic, the state's department of education recently mandated all junior and senior high schools have athletic trainers by 1985.
That is bold by other states' standards. Public schools in the District, Maryland and Virginia are among those that do not require trainers.
A handful of states, including Texas, Georgia and Kentucky, require trainers to be licensed by the state. The movement in Virginia, according to Joe Gieck, of the University of Virginia's athletic training department, is to register all trainers through the Medical Society of Virginia.
The National Athletic Trainers Association certifies 3,400 trainers, a process more stringent than certification by states. A number of them work for professional teams.
"Good trainers are hard to find," said Doonie Waldron, coach of St. John's of the Metro (Catholic) Conference, all of whose members employ trainers. "There aren't many rewards in it."
Cramer Products, a first-aid equipment manufacturer headquartered in Kansas, has been at the forefront of teaching athletic training techniques to students and coaches. Thirty-five clinics, some five days long, were given this summer on college campuses around the country.
The clinics impress Dennis Curry, a Northwestern High School principal who guides a few students to them each summer. Curry, formerly a basketball, volleyball and track coach for 15 years, started a still-strong student trainers' club at Largo High School four years ago.
"Coaches are extremely burdened," Curry said. "Student trainers can help out with emergency procedures, because some of those coaches don't even have Red Cross certification. A lot of them are self-taught."
Curry prepared a study for the county four years ago that outlined trainers' practicalities."Everyone agreed that we could use trainers, but money is always a priority," he said. "Athletics takes a step back when it comes to that. Something should come from the state level, because it's certainly not a county priority."
In Fairfax County, schools already require trainers to be NATA-certified. The same stipend that goes to head football coaches is offered to trainers; this has attracted just 12 trainers to 23 schools.
Trainers are more scarce among Montgomery, Prince George's, and Interhigh schools. With budgets limited, the school systems guard against injuries in different ways.
For three years, Prince George's County Public Schools have required coaches in all sports to renew annually cardiopulmonary-resuscitation training. PGCPS also hires emergency medical technicians for all varsity football and soccer games.
The Interhigh's central office for athletic administration lines up orthopedic specialist from D.C. General Hospital for each game, a practice that dates from the 1960s. The Montgomery County public school system pays to have paramedics at every gootball game, varsity and junior varsity, in addition to the spring county gymnastics meets.
MCPS also made available this year to coaches five films on safe football practices. Two years ago, MCPS approved a special allocation to buy 20 approved helmets for each high school.
Helmets have received much attention nationwide. The doctor who helped design a safer model in 1970 says deaths by head injuries since that time have been reduced by more than 50 percent.
"We will never will be able to eliminate all injuires, said Dr. Voigt Hodgson of Wayne State who led the helmet redesign study, "because even physicals can't tell us which players are susceptible to sharp angular blows.