Chris Williams was awake and talking to his family Sunday, two days after collapsing on East Gaston's football field with a serious head injury, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The senior linebacker was hurt in a tackle play early in the team's game against North Gaston Friday night. He underwent surgery Saturday morning and was listed in critical but stable condition Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, his condition had improved to serious, a Gaston Memorial Hospital spokeswoman said.
East Gaston's booster club president Tim Wilson was in the stands Friday night and said he saw Williams stand up and then fall to the ground. He recalled telling his son, a sophomore on the JV football team, that he thought Williams had a concussion.
The longer Williams lay on the field, though, the more he worried that it was something more serious.
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“It all happened so fast,” Wilson said. “…It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.”
The scare at East Gaston came a year after a Lincoln County eighth-grader collapsed on the sidelines during a football game and died the next day. Thirteen-year-old Will McLeod had carried the ball and was tackled. He got up, walked to the sidelines and fell to the ground. Doctors later determined that a blow to the head caused his death.
A week after Will's death, Gaston County middle- and high-school athletic directors met to make sure they were following proper protocol with helmet safety, the Observer reported at the time. They have an athletic director or coach examine helmets with a representative from the helmet maker, and helmets that need repair are sent back and refurbished. Middle and high schools also keep ambulances at every game.
East Gaston football players all have helmets that were either new or refurbished this season, Gaston County Schools spokeswoman Bonnie Reidy said, adding that the school uses “the best equipment money can buy. We are very concerned with the safety of our athletes.”
The refurbished helmets had all been recertified, she said.
Wilson said East Gaston's helmets were upgraded to add more padding, among other improvements.
“They were supposed to help alleviate the risk of concussions,” he said. “I feel sure Chris had one.”
The team also got new shoulder pads this season, partly because most of the team's injuries last year were shoulder-related, Wilson said.
In addition, coach Eric Tippett made his players take a test at the beginning of the season and, if they had a concussion, retake the test to determine whether they suffered any memory loss, Wilson said.
Tippett did not return phone calls to the Observer Sunday. While it's important for helmets and other equipment to meet safety guidelines, they can't prevent all serious injuries, such as concussions, experts say. Those injuries are usually caused by improper blocking and tackling, getting hit a second time before a first injury is healed or unknown medical conditions, experts say.
They say faulty equipment is rarely to blame.
East Gaston school officials and the football coaching staff have been at the hospital much of the weekend visiting Williams, Reidy said.
“We are very concerned,” she said. “We are hoping for a full recovery.”
Wilson said he doesn't know Williams well but that he “seemed to be quiet and reserved, and I know he always played hard.”
The injury has been jarring for the tight-knit East Gaston community, which was shaken late last month when two Mount Holly teenagers were killed in a car accident, he said.
“There's been so much tragedy to happen in our school,” Wilson said. “It's like one thing after another.”