As family mourns the death of Dylan Thomas, it’s unclear what caused his fatal brain injury

ZEBULON, Georgia — Dylan Thomas loved all sports but found his passion in football.

On Wednesday, his family will begin to pay tribute to the 16-year-old linebacker nearly three miles away from the field where he played his last game while the cause of his fatal injury is still unknown.

Dylan’s death has rattled the rural community of Zebulon, Georgia. Residents have gathered for vigils and put up his No. 32 jersey online and around the town. And his teammates were given the option to skip an away game this Friday in Macon.

“Dylan lived life to the fullest,” his obituary says. “He was a true friend, who never met a stranger.”

He was a loving son and a brother. Prior to football, he played recreational baseball and he enjoyed fishing as well as deer hunting.

A visitation is scheduled Wednesday afternoon at Moody-Daniel Funeral Home and a memorial service will take place Thursday at the Oak Hill Baptist Church in Zebulon, Pike County Schools said.

He was scared of hurting others

The excitement of Friday night football at the Pike County High School’s football field became a nightmare for Dylan’s family and also his coach.

“Any time I see one of our players on the ground, you just fear for the worst,” said coach Brad Webber. “The worst happened this time.”

Dylan fell in the third quarter and needed to be helped off the field. He was taken to a hospital after he lost consciousness while a doctor and trainer examined him. He died two days later of a head injury.

The organization that oversees Georgia high school sports said there is no evidence of negligence in his death.

“There is no indication of any negligent action by anyone associated with Pike County in this incident,” the Georgia High School Association said. “The coaches had taken every precaution to prepare for potential injuries and went beyond the required standards when working within the concussion protocol.”

Nick Burgess, Dylan’s uncle, posted on Facebook that Dylan had been scared of injuries on the field.

“The one that had the biggest heart. The one that told me personally he was always scared to seriously hurt somebody on the field and never thought it would happen to him,” Burgess wrote.

How did he get injured?

It’s still unclear when or how in the game Dylan was injured, Webber said.

He said coaches reviewed video of the game to try to pinpoint what happened — if he had taken a big hit to the head, for example — but nothing stuck out.

“That makes it almost harder as well that we just didn’t know,” he said. “If you know, you can prevent things. But just the way that happened, it’s just devastating. It’s just sad.”

In reviewing the game film and speaking with school officials, the GHSA said there was no indication Dylan suffered an injury in the second quarter.

The high schooler was wearing a top-of-the-line Riddell SpeedFlex helmet that his parents had bought for him to prevent a head injury.

“Dylan’s dad took his own money and bought an NFL-quality helmet for Dylan, because he was somewhat concerned about head injuries,” said Steve Fry, a first responder and the mayor of Williamson, Georgia.

Game-related deaths of football players are rare, but they happen every fall. Last year, of the 4 million young people who played organized football, 13 died from the sport, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.

Four of the deaths had “direct” causes from on-field trauma or injuries, and nine deaths were due to “indirect” causes such as heat stroke or cardiac arrest. The 2017 death toll was consistent with football-related fatalities dating back to 2000.

Professional and college football administrators have been increasingly focused on limiting head injuries amid concerns in recent years that the country’s most popular sport is damaging young people’s brains. Efforts to limit concussions and other brain injuries have found mixed results, given the inherent violence of a sport based on large, fast men and boys repeatedly crashing into each other.