TAMPA — Sean McNamee went up for a pass before football practice this week, and he came down with a fractured skull, a swollen brain and injuries so severe that doctors couldn’t promise they would save him.
“I don’t know that he’s going to live…” the doctor told his father. “Take your wife in, and take your daughter in, and say goodbye to him.”
Two days later, the 16-year-old Wharton High School junior was still in a medically induced coma at Florida Hospital Tampa, and his father was left with unanswered questions.
Why was a paint machine left near the practice field, where Sean’s head could slam against it? In a time of heightened awareness toward concussions, why didn’t anyone call an ambulance?
Todd McNamee knows accidents are a part of football, but if his son was too injured to remember his locker combination, how did the school let Sean slip away and drive himself home?
“I gave my son to Wharton High School that morning,” Todd said. “I had every right to expect him to come home in the same shape as I sent him in — maybe a little bit smarter.”
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Sean grew up in a football family — his dad and grandfather both played and coached — but his varsity career started late.
He was ruled ineligible at Tampa Catholic as a freshman because he participated in summer practices at Wharton, his zoned school. As a sophomore at Wharton, he just missed becoming academically eligible.
Sean got a math tutor on his own to boost his GPA before his junior season, so he could impress recruiters and try to play college football before joining the Marines. Two weeks ago, the 6-foot-2 linebacker scored his first varsity touchdown, returning a fumble 83 yards in a 21-18 win over East Bay.
“This was it,” his father said.
On Wednesday, Sean and his teammates were throwing the ball around before practice.
Drills hadn’t yet started, so Sean wasn’t wearing a helmet when he jumped over a defender for a pass near the end zone. When he landed, his head smacked the corner of a paint machine used to line the practice field, according to his family and a teammate.
Players heard the crash, and two teammates took him inside to see the school’s athletic trainer. One player said Sean was grabbing the left side of his head, just above his ear, in obvious pain.
“I think he knew right then that he was very, very seriously injured,” his dad said Friday during an interview down the hall from his son’s room in the intensive care unit.
Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesman Steve Hegarty said in a statement that Sean “indicated that he thought he was fine” to the school trainer and veteran coach David Mitchell.
“Based on what they observed and Sean’s responses to their questions, the coach and trainer made several decisions with Sean’s best interest in mind,” Hegarty said.
The trainer called Jody McNamee, telling her that her son had suffered a serious head injury and she should pick him up. Sean was so dazed, his family said, that he forgot the combination to his locker.
But somehow Sean slipped out of the training room, got in his car and drove 4 miles home.
“How can you tell a kid who has a head injury to just sit and expect him to stay there?” Todd said. “He’s delirious.”
The district said it is still gathering facts to learn how Sean left the school or how he was supervised after the injury.
“Though our main focus is on supporting the family and all the concerned classmates who are worried about him,” Hegarty said, “the district is investigating to determine exactly what happened before the team practice on Wednesday.”
When Sean got home to his 10-year-old sister, he was unable to dial his mom’s number. By the time his dad arrived, Sean couldn’t hold an ice pack against his head. He mumbled gibberish.
Todd begged his son to stay awake, but Sean lost consciousness as his dad drove to the hospital. He woke up enough to plop into a wheelchair.
A CT scan revealed a fractured skull. Sean’s brain was swelling, and blood was collecting inside his head. Before the doctor rushed Sean to surgery, he told the McNamees he’d do everything he could to save Sean. His family gathered to say goodbye.
“I thought that was it,” Todd said. “I thought I had seen the last of my son, alive.”
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Doctors induced a coma after removing the bloody tissue from Sean’s head. They’re keeping a part of his skull incubated in his abdomen so they can reattach it to his brain when the swelling goes down.
The McNamees don’t know if Sean will recover enough to walk or play football or use the driver’s license he recently earned. They don’t know if he’ll come back with the same goofy sense of humor. They don’t know if he’ll ever wake up.
“He’s not out of the woods by any means,” Todd said.
But Todd’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received in the third floor of the hospital.
A string of visitors, including Wharton’s coach, has filed into Sean’s room. Teammates and classmates supported him on Twitter with the hash tag #PrayForSean and hung a sign with that same message behind Wharton’s bench at Friday’s game against Steinbrenner. Cheerleaders wore white ribbons with Sean’s jersey number, 2, on their uniforms.
“All of those people have expressed nothing but love for him,” said Todd, his voice cracking. “For a kid of 16 to touch people like that is about the proudest thing a parent could have.”
Even in their grief, the McNamees understand Sean’s injury was an accident. Unused equipment like helmets and footballs litter the sidelines at practically every practice in the country.
While they haven’t discussed legal action, they haven’t ruled it out either.
“I’m not grinding an ax here,” Todd said. “That could be anybody’s kid lying in the bed.”
But as they watch their son lying motionless in the ICU, waiting for the swelling in his brain to subside, they have hours to ponder unanswered questions.
“It was a tragedy,” said Sean’s grandfather, Doug, “but it was a preventable tragedy.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.