Inside the house on the corner, Ken Sheely rests his hands on the kitchen table. Two black bracelets wind around his left wrist. Their white words hint at the truth behind the warm handshake, the easy smile, the offer of something to drink.
“PREVENT BRAIN INJURY”
The blinds are shut against the October sun in the Germantown subdivision. A few rays sneak into the kitchen, where not one dish or towel is out of place. Otherwise, the room is dark.
“There’s no language for losing a child,” Ken says. “There are words for losing your parents, losing a spouse. But it’s so unnatural to lose a child.”
Soft sobs from his wife, Kristen, emerge from an iPhone perched on the table.
On a Monday morning 26 months ago, the phone rang as they were driving. Their son, Derek, had collapsed during preseason football practice at Division III Frostburg State University in the hills of Western Maryland.
The parents had been beaming before the phone call. They were returning home from State College, Pa., after dropping off their daughter, Keyton, at Penn State University for her freshman year. Derek would graduate with a double major in history and political science in a few months. During the drive, the parents kicked around graduation gift ideas for the 22-year-old who dreamed of landing a job at the CIA. Definitely forgive the annual $3,000 loans they gave him to attend Frostburg State. Maybe a down payment for a car.
“The worst things we ever said to each other,” Ken says through a quivering voice, “[were], ‘Gosh, what a great life we have. Both of our kids are healthy, doing great in school and have the best of their lives ahead of them. Aren’t we lucky?’”
Derek never regained consciousness and died from “brain herniation, an acute subdural hematoma and massive vascular engorgement” six days later, on Aug. 28, at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. The death certificate listed traumatic brain injury as the cause.
The family believed the death to be a tragic, inexplicable accident.
An anonymous email arrived March 22, 2012, that made Ken sick to his stomach. The subject line read: “Information Behind the Death of Derek Sheely.” Months passed before Kristen could stand to read the graphic two-page note from an author who identified himself as one of Derek’s teammates but stayed behind the pseudonym John Doe.
“But now I feel that the family must know that it was not just an ‘ordinary concussion,’” the person wrote, “but also negligence on the part of some Frostburg football coaches.”
In August, the family sued the NCAA, Frostburg State head coach Tom Rogish, running backs coach Jamie Schumacher, trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr. and helmet maker Schutt Sports in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The lawsuit claimed that what happened during the August morning on Frostburg State's football field wasn’t accidental. It claimed staffers missed opportunity after opportunity to treat Derek’s head injury over three days until, finally, Mr. Schumacher called him a “pussy” for complaining of a headache moments before the man whom teammates regarded as the toughest player on the team fell to the turf.
What actually happened, though, extends beyond the grim football tale recounted in the lawsuit’s 66 pages to a system that ended in death. The NCAA never investigated what happened. If Frostburg State reviewed the death, no documents exist.
Ken’s face turns the color of his maroon T-shirt.