Boy dies during football practice

Published July 22, 2006

TAMPA — Jamel Johnson looked ill.

“I’m dizzy,” the 11-year-old told Chancey Scott, head coach of the Nuccio Jaguars midget football.
Scott told the boy he called “Tanker,” to get some water and take a knee. “Chill out,” he said.

The team hadn’t been practicing long that evening at Nuccio Park, but the drills were tough — running stairs and doing bunny hops and sprints up a hillside.

Then Jamel, a respectful boy who loved WWE wrestling and watching the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sundays, vomited. Scott told the boy to sit down, but he acted like he didn’t hear him, the coach said.

He was sick again and Scott called for help.

Within a few minutes, paramedics arrived and took the boy to a hospital with a fever of 103.

Jamel’s body temperature was 106 by the time paramedics got him to the hospital, according to a Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman.

Scott, who is dating Jamel’s older sister, said Jamel’s temperature rose so high it caused his liver and kidneys to shut down.

Jamel was placed on life-support Thursday and was pronounced dead on Friday.

He was the second child in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League to die in less than a week.

Jamel’s death, and the sudden death of 12-year-old Bobby Stephens of Riverview after a practice with the Progress Village Panthers four days earlier, has shocked league officials, parents and players, and raised many questions.

“It is just so unbelievable,” said Scott Levinson, head of the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. “We’ve had well over half a million kids go through this program and nothing like this has ever happened. ... It’s just amazing to me. I wish we had something to point to. It’s caused by this or this or this. But we just don’t have a history of this at all.”

Levinson said the league is reconsidering its health and safety requirements following Jamel’s death. But until the causes of the boys’ deaths are known, the league is not sure which, if any, safety measures would help.

“Like everyone else, we are looking for answers. We’re reviewing our program to see if there’s anything different we can do,” he said. “We’re all searching for answers and I don’t know if there are any.”

Hillsborough Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley said it may help if each team has a person at practice who is trained to look for signs of exhaustion, dehydration and heat stroke.

The 2,500-player league currently requires one coach on each team’s staff to be trained in CPR and it hires a paramedic to attend at each game. Coaches are required to take certification classes which offer instruction on first aid.

Levinson said he will require medical physicals next year, a new policy for the league, which was founded in 1968.

“Next year, whether the county requires it or not, we’re going to do them,” he said. “Now is that going to save someone life? Maybe. But there are no guarantees.”

Scott said Jamel had a physical the day before the practice that killed him.

“Everything was fine,” he said.

He said the boy, who stood about 5-feet 3-inches and weighed about 153 pounds, was slightly overweight but was in shape and had been exercising before football practices started.

Scott said the boy who just graduated from Cahoon Elementary was showing signs of recovery several days ago. He was up and walking around St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, joking with his mother and watching wrestling. But his condition deteriorated after that.

“I think God gave us that time as a gift,” Scott said.

The day of the practice, Scott said he was running late and almost left Jamel at home. He turned around and went back to pick him up because he knew how badly the boy wanted to be part of the team.

“He was like a son for me. I’m really taking it hard,” he said. “I feel like I didn’t bring her child back home when I took him from her house.”

He said he’ll talk with his players on Monday, the team’s first practice since Jamel’s death. He didn’t know Saturday what he would say.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 661-2443.