A Safer Game: What is being done to try and prevent a tragedy from repeating itself
Note: This story will be aired as a two-part series beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 10 p.m. and concluding on Wednesday, Feb 8 at 10 p.m.
EL PASO, Texas (KVIA) -- The high school football season may have finished a couple of months ago, but here in the Borderland, it's a season that will stay with many for a long time. Not because of the achievements on the field but rather because of the young man that lost his life.
On August 26, underneath the bright Friday night lights in Deming, darkness quickly filled the stadium as 17-year-old Abe Romero collapsed on the field and experienced 'seizure-like activity' according to his autopsy report by the New Mexico office of the medical investigator.
Just over three weeks later, Romero died from his injuries in an El Paso Hospital.
“We just don’t know what happened to Abe," former head football coach at Organ Mountain Steve Castille said. "I think it was him, best guess it was on a tackle getting swung around and his head hitting the ground.”
The report found Abe's death was the result of blunt head trauma but couldn't clarify if the collision was with another player or with the ground.
“The brain really bathes in a cerebral spinal fluid and so when the brain really hits another player or hits the ground, the brain moves around in that fluid," Colby Genrich assistant professor and Sports Medicine Fellowship Director at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso said. "It hits one side of the skull and the other, and that can cause damage to the brain, just functional or bleeding in the brain, which is obviously more serious.”
Abe's death was ultimately ruled an accident, but just like any tragedy, it has prompted reflection.
As a direct response to Abe's passing, Las Cruces Public Schools invested in Guardian Caps for the entire district.
Guardian Caps are a soft shell helmet cover that Guardian says reduces impact by up to 33%. Meanwhile a recent study with the NFL showed a more than 50% decrease in concussions while wearing the caps.
“The idea behind it is to reduce impact at the point of contact," Tony Plagman Guardian Cap national sales manager, said. "You’re absorbing some of the blow on impact as well as we have independent movement from the helmet."
“I don’t care if it’s 1% or 50% if we can be safer and healthier on Friday night because we’re not getting hurt in practice or you know it keeps kids healthier in general then we’re all for it," Castille said. "We’re willing to do whatever we need to to make sure we’re not in this position again.”
This season guardian caps became mandated for certain NFL position groups across all 32 teams through the second preseason game. They are also worn by more than 200 colleges around the country. Meanwhile, nearly 3,000 high schools in the nation also use the guardian caps.
Here in the Borderland, that includes Coronado, El Paso, Burges, Irvin, Del Valle, Chapin, Ysleta, Jefferson, Montwood, Centennial and Mayfield and will soon include both Las Cruces and Organ Mountain.
“If it helps one kid from getting a concussion or some type of brain injury it’s worth it, no matter the cost," Coronado head football coach Mike Pry said.
In his first year as head coach of the Coronado Thunderbirds Pry brought in the guardian caps. During the season the program saw three concussions compared to an average of 6.4 over the past five years.
It's important to note that guardian caps at this stage are not worn in game situations which is the setting Abe was in when he had that fatal collision.
Plagman told ABC-7 the caps shouldn't limit somebody's ability to play the game but does think they would see some pushback simply because of the look. He also said they are working towards getting them worn in games but knows in the meantime they're still playing a vital role in protecting players.
“A lot of the research is showing that those repetitive impacts are adding up so we’re just trying to reduce those impacts throughout the course of the season or an athlete’s career," Plagman said.
“The more concussions you get the higher the instances of concussions go," Genrich said. "One hit can really be it too, it can cause really traumatic damage to the brain and bleeding as well.”
Genrich told ABC-7 that new technology like the guardian caps and education have made the game safer.
A large part of that education has informed and changed the way tackling is taught.
“Developing players that keep their head up while tackling has decreased concussions really dramatically," Genrich said. "In the last four years they’ve seen a really a precipitous decrease just because of the change in that technique.”
In Texas, it's mandatory that every high school coach be certified with the Atavus tackling technique - a company that prides itself on teaching the safest way to tackle.
"It’s something Texas can hang their hat on because they’re the first state and the only state to kind of draw their line in the sand and say hey we’re going to do something rather than nothing," Atavus Vice President of corporate partnerships Terrence Wheatley said.
Wheatley told ABC-7 since 2019 when Atavus was introduced, head impacts across the state of Texas have gone down by over 10%, and he says they've also seen a decrease in concussions.
In the season prior to Atavus being required, Coronado saw nine concussions, in 2019, that number was reduced by a third to six concussions and in the years since that number has continued to decrease, reaching just three this past season.
Atavus isn't used across LCPS, but Castille told ABC-7 since he started coaching in Las Cruces, he's been certified in heads up tackling, which teaches a similar tackling technique to Atavus.
There's no doubt the game has taken leaps and bounds in becoming safer, but even with an emphasis on education, keeping your head out of tackles, and the new technology like guardian caps, there are still areas of the game that pose severe risks and Abe's death is proof of that.
“Unfortunately, there’s no holy grail in preventing concussions. These are big athletes that are having a huge contact, and head injuries are unfortunately going to be a huge part of that forever," Genrich said. "But creating more understanding of how these brain injuries occur and then protecting them with better techniques is what’s really going to improve the sport.”