Family turns tragedy into inspiration

Ken and Kristen Sheely have experienced a parent's ultimate tragedy: the loss of a child. Now, through a fledgling nonprofit organization, they hope to educate young athletes about brain trauma injuries and possibly spare other families from the pain and suffering the Germantown couple endured last year.

Derek Sheely was a 22-year-old honor student and a captain of Frostburg State's football team who collapsed in late August after suffering a blow to the head in practice. He died six days later of severe head trauma.


During the long, difficult months that followed, his grieving family started the Derek Sheely Foundation, dedicated to "increasing awareness and research of traumatic brain injuries."

"As a parent, you always hear about concussions," said Ken Sheely, Derek's father and a deputy director for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. "But until it happened to Derek, I never realized, one, the magnitude of how many occur and, two, how traumatic they are."


Derek Sheely, who had played four years of football at Northwest High in Germantown and transferred from Penn State to Division III Frostburg to play for the Bobcats, was participating in a routine contact drill the day he was injured.

Initial reports indicated that no one on the team could recall that Derek suffered a particularly violent hit that day. But at some point, the senior fullback walked toward the sideline and told coaches he wasn't feeling well.

He collapsed shortly after and never regained consciousness. After being flown to a hospital in Cumberland for surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, he was transferred to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he underwent other surgeries but died Aug. 28.

The death of Derek, a popular student and athlete, stunned the Bobcats football team and the entire school. And it prompted his bereaved family to do something to help other young athletes and their parents recognize the signs and symptoms of concussion injuries.

"There are 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions in the U.S. each year," Ken Sheely said. "When you do the math, that's one concussion every eight seconds. That's kind of [an] epidemic.

"The real key with concussion and brain injury is to get treatment while the concussion is small, when you first feel that you have the symptoms."

Ken Sheely said his family is "very disappointed" in the NCAA for not investigating the circumstances of Derek's death more fully in the hope of preventing brain injuries in other athletes.

"Here is an organization that makes a lot of money off a lot of children," he said. "We're not looking for blame or guilt or lawsuits. If athletes' safety is not the highest priority of the NCAA, I really question what they're spending all those billions of dollars on."

But in a statement released Tuesday, NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said: "Student-athlete safety is a top priority of the NCAA, and we will continue to work with our membership to address student-athlete medical concerns and to provide the best environment for student-athlete safety through intervention and education.

"While the NCAA does not investigate student-athlete sudden deaths, we do financially support the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, which independently collects and disseminates data involving brain and spinal cord injuries that result in permanent disability or death. This information is available to our membership and used during committee discussions on policy, education and rules."

Ken Sheely said the foundation also plans to fund a case study to see whether Derek exhibited any "unique signs" of a concussion the day he was injured.

The study will be led by sports medicine physicians from Penn State and the Hershey Medical Center, along with experts from Penn State and Frostburg State.


"We hope to obtain information which will provide us with better understanding of the etiology of this type of traumatic brain injury, as well as prevention and treatment strategies," said Dr. Kevin Black of Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center.

Said Ken Sheely: "We're going to look at the film [of the practice], look at medical records, look at his helmet, interview eyewitnesses. They hope to share the results nationally and internationally to help others."

As he has since the beginning of his family's ordeal, Ken Sheely stressed again that he doesn't blame football for his son's death.

"Derek loved football," Ken Sheely said. "The last thing he would want is to change the sport. What we're about is, we want to educate the kids and parents about what a concussion feels like."

The Derek Sheely Foundation will sponsor a 4.0-mile fundraising run — Derek wore uniform No. 40 — June 12 in Germantown.

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