In the hours and days following the death of Jackson Prep defensive tackle Walker Wilbanks on Aug. 25, 2014, athletic director Will Crosby spoke with anyone who observed or had contact with the junior the day of the Patriots’ season-opening football game against Oxford.
Wilbanks died from hyponatremia, a severe sodium deficiency that caused the two-sport athlete’s brain to swell because of his body’s inability to regulate water and salt concentrations in the blood stream.
It wasn’t just a matter of making sure Prep did everything in its power to recognize and respond to the situation in the best manner, but to learn from what happened.
Medical professionals and leading experts in the field determined there was nothing Jackson Prep could have done that Friday night to prevent Wilbanks from dying.
But that didn’t satisfy the desire of Jason Walton, Prep head of school, to make sure he and his staff were doing everything they could to put student-athlete safety in the forefront and prevent another tragedy.
“The steady current of conversation went on for 12 months,” Walton said. “How are we going to be ready? Are we going to be ready? I can’t do this again.”
Nearing the one-year anniversary of Wilbanks’ death, Jackson Prep is setting a precedent for high schools in Mississippi with new player safety initiatives.
The Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, of which Jackson Prep is a member, and the Mississippi High School Activities Association provide several guidelines and recommendations for athlete safety, but some high schools in Mississippi are better prepared to handle injuries, from acute to catastrophic, than others.
Through a partnership with the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, an organization founded on preventing sudden death in sport, Jackson Prep is leading the charge in developing the gold standard for protecting the health and safety of its student-athletes.
“Seeing what this community went through and knowing who Prep is and who Prep is in the MAIS, I think it’s incumbent upon us to be a leader,” Walton said. “I think we’re looked at by some schools as the example. This is one of those areas we want to be leading in. To the extent that we can know more than we knew, we wanted to. To the extent that we could do more than we were doing, we wanted to.
“We want the moms and the dads and the prospective families to know that we’re restless here at Jackson Prep. We’re feeling for the cool side of the pillow. We’re looking around the corner. If there’s more, we want to do more.”
Crosby and Walton first established a relationship with Douglas Casa, the chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute and one of the leading researchers on the prevention of sudden death in sport, when he spoke to athletic training students at the University of Southern Mississippi last October.
In January, Casa spent two days on Jackson Prep’s campus going over the measures taken when Wilbanks fell ill to the days following his death. He also helped devise a plan for the Patriots to become better equipped to handle the health and safety of its student-athletes.
“I give them credit. They had a tragedy last summer, and they were reflective,” Casa said.
“I didn’t come to critique what happened in the previous summer, it was about moving forward. … If you’re playing the odds in Vegas, what is everything they should be doing to realistically keep their athletes as safe as possible?”
Casa drew up a plan with five health and safety recommendations. The first was installing automated external defibrillators on campus.
Since cardiac issues are the leading cause of death in sport, AEDs needed to be easily accessible.
Now, anyone on Jackson Prep’s campus has access to seven AEDs, all of which are no more than a 60-second walk.
“(With cardiac), every minute that passes, the survivability goes down 10 percent,” Casa said. “You have to have them accessible. That’s why we had them staged all around campus not just for athletics, but for anybody who might have a problem.”
According to Casa, it’s common for most high schools across the country to have accessible AEDs on campus.
State Rep. David Baria proposed a bill during the 2015 legislative session that would require all public and private high schools in Mississippi to have an AED on school grounds. The bill died in committee.
Casa’s other recommendations included each AED having an emergency action plan with it — something to help guide a person on the steps to take to let medical personnel know where they are and how to administer help.
He also recommended coaches receive regular training regarding emergencies in sport, encouraged the Patriots’ football staff to be certified in Heads Up Football (a program developed by USA Football to make sure coaches meet a minimum set of standards related to proper tackling technique, receiving blows/tackles, equipment fitting, heat illness, cardiac issues, concussions, hydration, etc.) and that Jackson Prep have a full-time certified athletic trainer on staff.
That last recommendation could possibly be the biggest game changer of all.
On a given football Friday night, it’s likely a certified athletic trainer will be roaming sidelines in Mississippi during a game.
This isn’t a coach who also doubles as an ankle taper. It’s a trained professional hired and paid through a third party (usually a hospital) at little to no cost to schools.
Medicomp Physical Therapy provides full- or part-time trainers to 16 high schools across the state, ranging from Brandon to Okolona.
In the past, Mississippi Sports Medicine has provided Jackson Prep with a trainer for several of its sporting events.
To ensure its student-athletes will be under regulated care at all times, Ricky Clark was hired through Medicomp in July to be a full-time trainer at Jackson Prep.
Prep is the only school in the MAIS to have a full-time athletic trainer. Several schools in the bigger classifications of the MHSAA have these individuals on staff, but it’s a rarity across the state.
Clark came to Jackson Prep after working at Warren Central as an athletic trainer for four years. He will be responsible for the health care and well being of every student-athlete in the 13 sports Jackson Prep offers.
With students enrolled from sixth through 12th grade, it’s not just the junior varsity and varsity sports that will receive his attention.
“(Elementary and secondary sports are) totally neglected in most parts,” Clark said. “They don’t get as much attention as the varsity sports and junior varsity sports. But that will change here.”
Clark’s duties extend beyond game day. Part of his daily routine will be to attend every practice, be available for rehabilitation and treatment, determine if it’s too hot to play or practice by taking a reading with the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature monitor (which takes into account ambient temperature, relative humidity, wind and solar radiation from the sun), and make sure athletes are receiving the required amount of water breaks and rest periods.
“There’s that sense of security,” varsity boys and girls soccer coach Jon Marcus Duncan said. “We can’t prevent every injury, but I guess there’s that level of security, not that we felt insecure. But after we went through something as tragic as what happened last year, I think we’ve taken extra precautions.”
This fall, Clark will be at every home and away football game. For other sports, home events will take precedence, but Clark will always have hold on what’s going on with athletes.
“Just the other day, one of our girls rolled her ankle at our game at Canton (Academy),” softball coach Cory Caton said. “Ricky already knew about it because he talked to the trainer that saw her there.”
The coaches are not certified athletic trainers. Despite their knowledge of injuries and health and safety, nothing compares to having a professional on staff.
“A large percent of the population doesn’t understand that athletic trainers are licensed medical professionals who have specifically been prepared to prevent, recognize, treat and oversee the return from athletic injuries,” Casa said. “No parent would want their coach making life-or-death decisions for their child in serious circumstances.”
Clark’s presence provides peace of mind at Jackson Prep, but it comes as part of an overall emphasis on safety. Any person who wears a whistle around the neck, be it the head coach or a first-year assistant, is now certified in AED use and administering CPR.
Prior to the start of school last week, Prep’s coaches spent two days in hands-on AED/CPR training. They also learned from experts at the Korey Stringer Institute, via Skype, about recognizing signs of the leading causes of sudden death in sport, such as heat illness, exertional sickling and anaphylaxis management.
Like most of the Patriots athletic staff, Jacob Land, a third-year assistant football coach, has never had to administer CPR.
But now if the situation arises, he’ll be able to handle it.
“The hardest part is mentally preparing yourself that one day this might actually happen,” Land said. “You have to learn this stuff and take it seriously. With everything that happened last year, all of these situations now become surreal because you realize that they could possible happen, that I could have to do this.”
Source: The Clarion-Ledger