Teams Prepare for the Worst

Times Staff Writer

On the football field, the baseball diamond and hockey’s frozen ponds, injury is every player’s constant companion. Protected by layers of pads, masks, helmets and mouth guards, players routinely absorb bruising tackles, bone-crunching checks and 90-mph fastballs that leave the imprint of seams on their skin.

Rarely do those impacts result in death, as happened Sunday on a seemingly ordinary kick return in an Arena Football League game in Staples Center.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 13, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball player’s death -- An article in Monday’s Sports section about sports-related deaths said Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was hit on the head by a pitched ball on May 16, 1920, and died the next day. Chapman was hit Aug. 16, 1920, and died on Aug. 17.

Avenger lineman Al Lucas fell to the ground and never got up after an opposing blocker and ballcarrier tumbled over his head and back and apparently hit him in the head. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead of a presumed spinal cord injury at a hospital.

Lucas, 26, was among the few athletes in ball-and-bat sports who died as the direct result of an incident on the field of play.

Hockey, despite all its hard hitting and the sudden deflections that redirect rocketing pucks into unprotected throats and eyes, has experienced only one death as the consequence of an on-ice accident. On Jan. 11, 1968, Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars fell and hit the back of his unprotected head on the ice; he died 27 hours later, never emerging from a coma.


Baseball also has suffered only one death as the result of a pitch, batted ball or other action related to the game. On May 16, 1920, at New York’s Polo Grounds, Yankee Carl Mays hit Cleveland Indian shortstop Ray Chapman on the side of the head with a pitch, causing a skull fracture and other complications that led to Chapman’s death the next day.

No football player has been declared dead on the field, but several players died shortly after games, including Detroit Lion receiver Chuck Hughes, who suffered a heart attack during a game Oct. 24, 1971, collapsing as he headed back to the huddle after he caught a pass.

In college football, Mississippi defensive back Chucky Mullins died 18 months after he broke his neck on a tackle in a 1989 game against Vanderbilt, and Washington defensive back Curtis Williams died in 2002 after he was paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a tackle against Stanford.

So too has basketball lost players to heart conditions. Boston Celtic forward Reggie Lewis, who had collapsed during a playoff game against Charlotte, died during a practice session July 27, 1993. And the death of Hank Gathers, the charismatic Loyola Marymount forward who was felled by myocarditis during a 1990 game against Portland in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, was equally tragic.

Thanks to prompt medical care, two hockey players were spared death on the ice. Goaltender Clint Malarchuk, then with the Buffalo Sabres, nearly bled to death after an opponent’s skate sliced open Malarchuk’s jugular vein during a goalmouth scramble; only the swift actions of Sabre trainer Jim Puzzutelli -- who had been a medic in Vietnam -- kept him alive. He returned to the ice three weeks later.

Montreal Canadien forward Trent McCleary also benefited from quick thinking and quick coordination of medical treatment Jan. 19, 2000. He went down to block a shot but instead took the slap shot in his throat, shattering his larynx.

Two doctors on duty at the Molson Centre jumped to his side, as did another doctor watching in the stands. Within about 18 minutes, he was on a hospital operating table, where surgery saved his life.

Although McCleary recovered, he was unable to play hockey again and retired the following autumn.

NHL spokesman Frank Brown said McCleary’s near-tragedy spurred the league to review its medical policies and ensure doctors, paramedics and an ambulance are available to treat those who are seriously injured during a game. Many teams, on their own, also have defibrillators in place at arenas.

NBA teams are required to have physicians available at all games, including exhibition and playoff games, a league spokesman said. He said that although he did not have immediate access to the league’s current operations manual, he believed most arenas also have emergency medical technicians and an ambulance on hand.

Tim Tessalone, sports information director at USC, said an ambulance is on-site at Trojan games as well as defibrillators, certified athletic trainers, team doctors, paramedics and/or advanced life-support personnel.

“We do what probably every major college and pro team does in terms of trying to prepare for these kinds of incidents,” Tessalone said.

He added that defibrillators are present at every type of team function, whether at Heritage Hall, on the road, during practices or at games.

A Dodger spokesman said the team always has doctors and paramedics on-site.

Boxing has seen death and tragedy over the years, although the exact number of fatalities is impossible to quantify. In a 2004 article in the Journal of Combative Sport, 1,197 fatal bouts were documented through firsthand accounts, newspaper clippings and other sources. A week ago, Becky Zerlentes of Colorado became the first female boxer to die as the result of a sanctioned amateur bout when she was knocked out in the third round of a fight.

Auto racing has had at least 20 prominent deaths on the track since 1982, including NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt in 2001, CART driver Greg Moore at Fontana in 1999, IRL driver Scott Brayton in 1996 and Formula One’s Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on consecutive days in 1994 at Imola, Italy.

Champ Car has had a traveling safety team since 1989, and a mobile medical unit since 1996 that attends every North American race. Dr. Chris Pinderski, a board-certified emergency physician at Poplar Bluff, Mo., is Champ Car’s director of medical affairs, and was on track Sunday at Long Beach in one of three safety vehicles.

A second doctor, board-certified general surgeon Rick Timms of Savannah, Ga., remained in the mobile unit, a $1-million transporter that expands to 850 square feet.

“It’s essentially a mobile emergency department with everything except a CT scanner and full X-ray suite,” Pinderski said.


John Kaleo threw four of his five touchdown passes in the second half to lead the Avengers (6-4) to a 66-35 victory over the New York Dragons (6-4) in Staples Center.

In other games, host Chicago defeated San Jose, 55-39, and Colorado defeated Philadelphia, 77-56, at Denver.

Times staff writers Martin Henderson and Gary Klein and Associated Press contributed to this report.