John Lopez spent about 30 minutes yesterday talking to the Hereford football players about safety and the risks of football, "just like you would bring an outside counselor into a school for other traumatic situations," he said.
In the span of two Friday games against Franklin and Lansdowne, Bulls players had watched two well-conditioned 15-year-olds go down to season-ending head and neck injuries.
But Lopez, director of the Towson Sports Medicine Center, said that he hoped the incidents would not be taken as "an indictment" against county football and that the injuries are extremely rare.
His contention is supported by a national study conducted last year.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, there were 21 high school football injuries to the head and neck in 1998, all of which had a full neurological recovery (no paralysis).
That's a rate of less than one-half injury per state.
"Your son is safer playing football than getting in his car and driving home after school," said Lopez.
But a near-paralyzing neck injury to Hereford's Aaron McKeegan, 15, probably from being slammed on his head by a late hit against Franklin, required surgery at St. Joseph Medical Center last week to repair two displaced vertebrae, one fractured, in his neck.
Doctors say McKeegan might not be able to play football again as a result of his injury.
Last Friday, while playing against Hereford, Lansdowne junior linebacker Steve Sickle suffered a bruised spinal cord, a concussion and a severely broken finger. The concussion and spinal injuries occurred after he wasknocked unconscious for about two minutes after fainting face-first during routine pursuit along the line of scrimmage.
Speaking to Hereford's players at the request of coach Steve Turnbaugh, Lopez told them that "if they were scared because of these two incidents, or had reservations about playing the game, they should speak up and let their coaches know," and that "being injured does not mean that you're not a man."
"I talked to the kids today about the dangers of the game, and [told them] that, basically, if they play the game as they're coached and as they're taught, the game is a relatively safe game," Lopez said. "Certainly, you regret what has happened, but Baltimore County football has been coached safely."
Lopez said Baltimore County coaches are specifically instructed in dealing with head and neck injuries in an annual Safe Football Seminar he developed 14 years ago with assistance from county athletics coordinator Ron Belinko.
With Sickle, for example, paramedics took precautions by immobilizing him on the Lansdowne football field for about 20 minutes before a helicopter arrived to take him to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"Our trainer, Molly Holmead, was there first. And the paramedics from Lansdowne's volunteer fire department were on the field in seconds," said Lansdowne athletic director Bob Newton. "They immobilized him and did not remove his helmet. They took proper precautions."
Players from Lansdowne and Hereford prayed together for the boys after the game. The next day, their JV programs played each other, wearing McKeegan's and Sickle's jersey numbers on their wrists.
Tara Coates contributed to this article.