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Only ‘sympathies’

Four months after Kristen Sheely wrote NCAA President Mark Emmert in December 2011 about her son’s death, an envelope arrived from Indianapolis. The four-paragraph letter from Mr. Klossner extended condolences, called Derek’s death “tragic” and noted that risk can’t be removed completely from contact sports. Then Mr. Klossner directed her to the NCAA’s health and safety website.

The words didn’t seem real. She turned over the letter. She couldn’t stand to look at it.

“What are they there for,” she says through a voice that still shakes, “if not to protect the health and safety of their athletes?”

The letter remains their only communication with the NCAA. Kristen can’t understand why the NCAA’s response to their son’s death amounted to the cost of postage.

“We were saddened by this student-athlete’s death in 2011 and continue to extend our sympathies to the family,” an NCAA representative wrote in a statement to The Times. “Nonetheless, we disagree with the assertions and allegations made against the NCAA.”

Players interviewed by The Times didn’t recall any extra concussion education in the days after the collapse. Instead, Frostburg State coaches showed the team the buddy comedy “Due Date.” They resumed practice. They wanted to play harder for Derek.

“He should not be dead,” Mr. Eyring says. “It should not be to the point where it cost the kid his life. Yeah, we had our NCAA policies and watched the video and had our talks, but I mean what it all comes down to is we all knew better.”

Unprotected linebackers in The Drill were given large pads after Derek’s death. Hitting in practice declined dramatically. Frostburg State distributed Brain-Pad mouthguards to players who had suffered concussions. Repeated studies, though, haven’t shown that mouthguards do anything to mitigate concussions. In 2012, the company entered a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to stop making unsupported claims or face significant fines.

“I think a lot of people blame the coaches for what happened, but I don’t know if in reality it’s their fault or more so the, I guess, football culture or the way D3 players and coaches are treated,” Mr. Parker writes. “I feel the NCAA doesn’t care about D3 athletes so we aren’t given the resources to keep us safe like higher level schools.”

The Sheelys, though, felt discouraged. Betrayed. Frustrated. Ignored. Disgusted. Angry. Even guilty.

They commissioned Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., to study the circumstances around Derek’s death in hopes of learning something, anything, to prevent a similar occurrence. If the governing body for college sports couldn’t examine the circumstances that led to the death of one athlete, they would shoulder the task themselves. Research is continuing. They raised $40,000 to endow a leadership award at Frostburg State in Derek’s memory. They started a foundation bearing his name to raise concussion awareness.

They debated the lawsuit for months before filing on the two-year anniversary of Derek’s collapse. (Responses from the defendants are due in December.) They aren’t the sort to wind up in a courtroom. The Sheelys decided they couldn’t live with themselves if another person was injured doing the same drills, playing under the NCAA’s same 195-word rule. They wanted someone to listen.

But, mostly, they are left alone with grief that hasn’t ebbed. Something as simple as a wedding invitation reminds them of what their son missed.

On the way out, three oversized photos of Derek rest against easels on the dining room table. Ken points out a fake smile in one, the real thing in another. For a moment, his voice lightens.

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