Gavin Class, the Towson University football player who battled back from a near-fatal heatstroke, has won his bid to rejoin the team. A U.S. district judge ruled Friday that Towson must allow Class, a 22-year-old lineman, to suit up for the Tigers when they begin practice Aug. 9.
"I'm ecstatic," said Class, a St. Paul's graduate who had filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the university in May after Towson barred him from outdoor practices with the team, citing the severity of his earlier injury.
In August 2013, Class collapsed during practice. His temperature rose to 108 degrees, which caused his heart to stop and his liver to fail.
After 14 surgeries at University of Maryland Medical Center, including a liver transplant, Class fought back into shape only to learn that Towson had determined he could not safely play for the Tigers.
On Friday, Judge Richard D. Bennett ruled otherwise.
"Despite the extraordinary comeback of Gavin Class, the Towson University football team physician [Dr. Kari Kindschi] has blocked his return to the field," Bennett wrote. "The University shall be ordered to permit [Class] to return to active status as a full participant in its football program."
The judge stayed the decision for 10 days to allow Towson to file an expedited appeal, if it so chooses, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va. The university said Monday it intended to file that appeal this week.
"After thoroughly reviewing the judge's decision and conferring with our colleagues in the Maryland Attorney General's office, we have decided to appeal the ruling," a university statement read. "We expect to file a formal appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. As an institution, our highest priority is the safety and well-being of our students. This decision to appeal is consistent with that core value."
Class' attorney, Andrew Dansicker, called the court's decision "groundbreaking" on several fronts.
"This is the first case in the country, that we're aware of, where a federal judge has ordered a university to allow an athlete to play any sport against the decision of the university — and the first case where a judge has ruled that heatstroke is a disability," Dansicker said.
Class, at 6 feet 4 and 255 pounds, is 50 pounds lighter than before the heatstroke. He was working out at a private gym when he got the news at 5 p.m.
"I sent out a big text [message] about it," he said, adding that he planned to celebrate this evening by "hanging out with all the boys on the team."
Class said he knows the court ruling doesn't assure him a place on the roster.
"I've got to fight for my spot like everyone else," he said. "Whether I make it or not, I'll be happy, and grateful to God that he let me play again."
His father, Jon Class, said that nearly two years later, his son "has achieved his goal of returning to football. That in itself was his goal."
In his ruling, Bennett wrote that none of the on-field accommodations Class has asked for, including high-tech protective abdominal padding that the athlete produced in court, would strain Towson's manpower or resources. Prior to each practice, Class would swallow a "thermometer pill" to allow a trainer to wave a hand-held monitor over his abdomen for three to five seconds every five to 10 minutes to check his core body temperature.
Class' family has offered to pay the cost of the pill and equipment. For the first two weeks of practice, the trainer would come gratis from the Korey Stringer Institute in Connecticut, a leader in heatstroke treatment for athletes and the military.
"The evidence at the hearing [Tuesday] indicated that Class is at no increased risk [of heatstroke] if his requested accommodations are provided," the judge wrote.
His decision, Bennett opined, will ensure that "individuals like Gavin Class, who suffered a catastrophic injury but was able to recover and can once again safely participate in a program, have the opportunity to do so."