ZEBULON, Georgia — The linebacker in the red No. 32 jersey for Pike County High School was all over the field Friday night.
Dylan Thomas, the 16-year-old linebacker, fought off blockers twice his size. He tackled ball-carriers to the turf. And then he got back up and did it again.
Until he couldn’t anymore.
Video of Dylan’s final game was released by Pike County High School on Wednesday, less than a week after the game and days after the teenager’s shocking death.
He died on Sunday from a head injury that first showed its impact in the third quarter, when he came off the field and said his leg was feeling weird, coach Brad Webber said. He later became incoherent and lost consciousness on the sideline.
The footage does not clearly show any traumatic or catastrophic hits to his head. At one point in the second quarter, he is seen in the video being hit by two players on a running play and is slow to get up afterward. He gets up after that and continues playing.
But in the third quarter, the camera cuts to the sideline, where Dylan is being carried on a stretcher toward an ambulance that had driven onto the field. The crowd claps supportively, unaware of the devastation to come.
The video does little to solve the major unanswered question: What exactly caused this healthy high school football player’s death?
“The questioning coming from everyone is when did it happen,” Pike County School Superintendent Michael Duncan said. “We understand. We just don’t know.”
Obituary asks guests to wear jerseys
The release of the video comes on the same day his family will begin to pay tribute to Dylan, who Webber described as a fine young man and the “heart and soul” of the team’s defense.
“Dylan lived life to the fullest,” his obituary says. “He was a true friend, who never met a stranger.”
Dylan’s death has rattled the rural community in and around Zebulon, Georgia, where Dylan’s Pike County Pirates play. Residents have gathered for vigils and put up his No. 32 jersey online and around the town. Students at nearby schools wore red and black, Pike County’s team colors, and rival football teams have offered up their own No. 32 jerseys in solidarity.
Prior to football, Dylan played recreational baseball and he enjoyed fishing as well as deer hunting, his obituary says.
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. The family also asked that all football players who attend the service wear their jerseys.
In addition, his teammates were given the option to skip an away game this Friday in Macon.
Shirley Reeves, the chairwoman of the Child Fatality Review Committee for Upson & Pike County, said all child fatalities in Georgia are reviewed by a board when the death is sudden, unexpected or unexplained.
“This case will be reviewed according to those procedures. Our office will not comment any further out of respect for the family of Dylan Thomas and the Pike County Community,” Reeves said.
How did he get injured?
Coach Webber has said they cannot pinpoint a clear big hit or collision that explains Dylan’s death.
“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 Georgia High School Association, which oversees Georgia high school sports, 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.
The Georgia High School Association 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 GHSA said. “The coaches had taken every precaution to prepare for potential injuries and went beyond the required standards when working within the concussion protocol.”
He was scared of hurting others
The excitement of Friday night football 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 Webber. “The worst happened this time.”
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.
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.