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In Nobody’s Playbook

2 minute read

Dozens of teenagers from Suffolk County, New York, donned football jerseys during the first weekend in October. If only they were headed to a game.

Instead they attended a wake for one of their own. Tom Cutinella, a junior offensive lineman and linebacker for Shoreham–Wading River High School, died on Oct. 1, hours after colliding with another player during a game. An official cause of death was not released, but police reported that Cutinella–who was adored by his small, tight-knit community–had suffered a head injury.

Cutinella, 16, became the third high school football player to die within a week. On Sept. 28, Demario Harris of Troy, Ala., died two days after making a tackle; on Facebook, Harris’ father said his son had suffered a brain hemorrhage. In North Carolina, Isaiah Langston, a linebacker for Rolesville High School, died after collapsing during pregame warm-ups on Sept. 26. Both were 17.

Eight high school football players died while playing the game in 2013, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. In a collision sport, the adolescent brain is at particular risk. The electrical wiring is not yet fully insulated, leaving it more vulnerable to injury. “The 16-year-old brain is still developing,” says Robert Stern, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine. “It’s a vulnerable brain, in many cases being struck by big, adult-sized bodies.” High school players also have weaker neck muscles than college and pro players. “It’s the bobblehead effect,” says Jamsid Ghajar, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and president of the Brain Trauma Foundation. “The whiplashing neck motion causes the jostling of the brain that leads to concussions and worse.” Concussion rates in the high school game are 78% higher than in college, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Would you let your son play? That question just gets tougher.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com