A Costa Mesa High outside linebacker died from bleeding and swelling in the brain, most likely after suffering repeated blows to the head during two earlier football games, Orange County coroner's officials said Thursday.
The autopsy found that Matt Colby, 17, had sustained repeated blunt force trauma head injuries when he collapsed Sept. 28 in a game against Huntington Beach Ocean View and never regained consciousness.
While the autopsy could not determine a specific incident that caused the injuries, Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino said it "would not be inconsistent with the history provided in this case of Matthew Colby's participation in contact football games during the two weeks prior to death."
Deron Colby, Matthew's uncle, said in a statement the report "confirms what the family had believed all along.... Our family continues to mourn the loss of Matthew ... and the past months have been very difficult for all of us."
Colby had complained to friends of headaches after the two earlier games, and game film shows he delivered and sustained several blows during the course of those matches. At the coaching staff's instruction, Colby saw a doctor and received clearance to play on Sept. 28, although he was held out of contact drills leading up to that contest.
Colby's death has raised awareness about head injuries and when players who have suffered head injuries should be allowed to return to play. It is a topic that will be placed on the agenda at next month's meeting of CIF state commissioners.
It also prompted an investigation by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. District officials would not discuss findings until obtaining additional information regarding the autopsy.Costa Mesa Coach Dave Perkins said Thursday he was surprised to learn of the coroner's findings.
"Matt really showed no symptoms of having a head injury," Perkins said. "He had slight headaches and he told us about them and he was cleared to play."
Perkins still believes his staff did everything within its power to treat Colby.
"I think what we did was very prudent," he said. "He was referred to a doctor, examined by a doctor, and he was looked at by a trainer. We followed through on all that we were supposed to and Matt was OK."
Some medical experts, including the Ocean View team doctor who treated Colby on the sideline after he collapsed, said Colby could have suffered Second Impact Syndrome. It can occur when the brain has not adequately healed from an earlier concussion. The second blow does not have to be violent to cause death.
Second Impact Syndrome would not be evident from the autopsy, said Martin Holland of the University of California, San Francisco, an assistant professor of neurosurgery."Second impact does imply that he had several injuries over time," Holland said. "But we knew that just from his story.... You wouldn't be able to tell on an autopsy."
At Estancia High, where Colby played for three years before transferring to Costa Mesa, a sign and pictures rest near his favorite hangout.
But Estancia Coach Jay Noonan said Colby's legacy will be sustained in other ways.
His death underscored the need for caution in return to play, causing players, coaches, parents and other officials to proceed with additional care.
"It makes us think back about what we do for the kids [when they are injured] and reinforces the proper way we teach the game," Noonan said. "That we make sure it's sound and legal."
Southern Section Commissioner Jim Staunton said Colby's death, coupled with the deaths of other football players nationwide this year from a variety of causes, raised awareness of preventative measures that can be taken to protect players' health and safety.
The Southern Section sends out advisories about heatstroke and dehydration each summer, for example, but nothing about Second Impact Syndrome. Staunton said the Colby findings will likely lead to a revamped advisory.
He also said that the State CIF Commissioners will meet Jan. 8-9 in San Diego and he intends to add a discussion of Second Impact Syndrome to the agenda.
"I think this year has caught people's attention as a whole," Staunton said. "Schools and coaches are much more aware about the possibility of these things.... We have to do what we can to make people more aware of it."
Second Impact Syndrome gained greater prominence and acceptance following a 1993 incident in Anacortes, Wash., involving 16-year-old Brandon Schultz. He suffered a concussion during a football game, followed by headaches.
Unlike Colby, he did not see a doctor before returning to action. What looked like an essentially harmless tackle in that next game altered his life.
Schultz collapsed and went into a coma. Schultz lived after sustaining the catastrophic brain injury. It took four brain surgeries to keep him alive, and he now needs continual supervision at a neurological facility in Bakersfield. He suffers motor control problems on his left side, needing a brace to walk.
"Everybody has become more aware that there needs to be a rule for return to play," said attorney Michael Nelson, who represented Schultz.
Staff Writers Dan Arritt and Peter Yoon contributed to this report.