A seemingly minor knee injury resulted in amputation for a St. Petersburg high school football player recently. Now the senior faces not only the loss of part of his leg, but also his football career.

A seemingly minor knee injury

In a late October game against Clearwater High, Northeast High School defensive lineman Leshawn Williams suffered an injury on a fourth-down play late in the first half. Football helmetMembers of the medical staff assessed his injury and tried to determine if the 6-foot, 330-pound lineman had suffered a ligament injury or fracture. An ambulance took him to a nearby children’s hospital before he was transferred to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. The game was delayed almost 30 minutes while Williams was being stabilized.

The lineman’s status became more critical as surgeons struggled to restore circulation to his leg. The morning after the injury, Williams tweeted that he had never cried so much in his life and that he could not move his toes. By Sunday night, the surgeons decided to amputate his leg just above his knee. His mom did not tell her son about the decision to amputate until after surgery.

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High-energy injuries and neurovascular damage

Such devastating leg injuries are not common in sports, but they can occur. The high-energy nature of some multi-ligament knee injuries and fractures of the bones around the knee can cause blood vessel and nerve damage. While these limb-threatening injuries are more common in motor vehicle accidents, they can occasionally occur in contact and collision sports like football.

Could something have been done?

Not surprisingly, many people, including Williams’ mother Bonita Copeland, wondered whether anything could have been done to save his leg. Northeast High School principal Kevin Hendrick told St. Petersburg’s FOX 13 that the school always has a doctor present at football games. Copeland questioned the slow response by paramedics, telling The Tampa Bay Times that an ambulance didn’t arrive for “somewhere between 20 to 30 minutes.”

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The challenge of providing ambulances at sporting events

As I’ve discussed previously, while having an ambulance and paramedics present at every football game would be ideal, it is challenging for counties to guarantee it due to budgetary and resource constraints. In Pinellas County, the school district reportedly does not pay for or Youth footballprovide them but schools can pay approximately $450 to have emergency medical services at games.

Even with an immediate response, a vascular injury can be challenging. In Williams’ case, doctors were unable to save his leg.

The team rallies behind Williams

At the next football practice, head coach Jeremy Frioud rallied his team. “This was just freakish, awful luck,” Frioud told the players. “But we’re going to be there as a team to help…The first thing (Williams) texted to us after this happened was ‘play hard.’ That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Players wore stickers with the number 69 – Williams’ jersey number – on their helmets for the team’s final two games. Fans wore red shirts with the number 69 and the words “Play Hard” on Senior Night.

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Leshawn Williams watched the final game – what would have been his final high school football game – from the end zone. He sat in a wheelchair with a blanket draped across his lower body.

Moving forward

The Northeast football team has started a fund to raise $50,000 dollars to help Williams’ family pay his medical expenses. Steve Cumberland of the charity foundation 50 Legs has pledged to donate a prosthetic limb to the senior.

The school has vowed to help Williams graduate this spring. His dreams of a football career are gone, but hopefully he can inspire others to “play hard” as he competes to return to a normal life.

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Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the November 13, 2014 issue of The Post and Courier.