Lesson Learned at Highest Price

By MARCIA C. SMITH
The Orange County Register
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
ANAHEIM – Devard Darling buttoned his jacket, tightened his necktie and tried to hold in his sorrow. But this peak-conditioned, broad-shouldered Baltimore Ravens receiver struggled.

At last week’s National Athletic Trainers’ Association conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, he spoke of the 2001 sickle cell trait-related death of his twin brother, Devaughn. He shared his “lesson,” the kind survivors, other athletes, coaches and health professionals sadly had to learn from an autopsy.

Sickle cell trait is a blood disorder that affects 2 million Americans, including 1 in 12 blacks, who carry one abnormal blood gene, not the two of sickle cell anemia.

Under physical stress, SCT-positive athletes’ blood cells can “sickle” or morph into quarter-moon shapes, increasing the risk that cells will clog inside blood vessels and skeletal muscles quickly will degenerate.

If athletes know they are SCT-positive — and not that many do — they can manage the condition and full sports careers.

University of Oklahoma athletic trainer Scott Anderson, who co-chairs this year’s NATA task force on the issue, cited nine U.S. athletes — male and female, across all sports, from the high school through the college levels — who have died from complications of sickle cell trait since 2000.

Most were engaged in strenuous conditioning, didn’t have sufficient recovery time between sessions and were deprived of water. Most complained of muscle cramping within the first 20 minutes of the exertion, legs “like Jell-O,” shortness of breath and a lack of strength — symptoms that mimic the onset of heatstroke or dehydration that commonly strike an hour into drills.

“Sickle cell trait problems often look like other things, which is why they’re easily overlooked,” Anderson said. “With 15-20 minutes of recovery rest, an athlete (with SCT) will normally be able to resume activity. Without it, there could be fatal consequences.”

Devaughn Darling didn’t know he had the trait. He didn’t get to recover. Nobody realized then that a brief rest and a chance to replenish his fluids could have saved his life.

As incoming freshmen at Florida State in 2000, Devard and his identical twin Devaughn were sitting through their team’s yearly presentation about the dangers of concussions, heatstroke and, yes, sickle cell trait. Their physicals showed that they were SCT-positive.

“That was the first time we heard of it. When they explained the risk factors, it was with a nonchalant attitude of ‘It’s not really a big deal,'” Devard Darling recalled. “My brother and I talked about it for a few seconds, but after we left the room, it was an afterthought. … we didn’t even tell our mother about it.”

On Feb. 26, 2001, Darling remembered, an iron spatula beat against their door around 5 a.m., rousing the freshmen awake for spring football’s brutal sprint drills that would “make us a true Seminole.” Devard, a wide receiver, went to the gym. Devaughn, a projected starting linebacker, was ordered to the field, where players lined up for three 20-minute sessions of explosive runs.

It didn’t take long for some players to stagger, grow dizzy and throw up into the large trash cans scattered on the sidelines. Stopping or going for water was for the weak. Finishing last meant you and the rest of your line had to run again.

“It came to a point when they were sending Devaughn back by himself,” said Darling, told of the scene by teammates. “He was a strong person. He didn’t want to quit or let his team down, so he kept going while they (coaches) literally watched him work himself to death.”

After the drills, Devard saw his brother outside the training room, looking fatigued, ice packs on his shoulders before his collapse. Devard rode with his brother in the ambulance, and by 8:29 that morning, Devaughn was dead.

“They said he had a heart attack,” Devard said. “People were blaming heat, blaming dehydration, blaming the workout, asking about creatine. A few days later, we learned that the ‘afterthought’ caused his death.”

After Devaughn’s death, an overcautious FSU denied Devard’s medical clearance to play football. His family settled a lawsuit against FSU for $2million, and Devard finished his football career at Washington State.

“This is a condition you can manage if you are aware of it,” said Darling, who closely monitors his fatigue and hydration levels during intense workouts. “I push myself harder than most (NFL players), and I’m careful. I know my body.”

The NATA task force advocates increased SCT screening, “a $5 to $15 test per athlete that’s the cost of a pizza,” Anderson said.

Few colleges and even fewer high schools conduct screenings. The pre-participation physical forms, which all CIF athletes must submit before team tryouts, rely entirely on athletes self-reporting a medical history in a questionnaire that doesn’t specifically ask about sickle cell disorders.

At Oklahoma, Anderson has the entire Sooners football team screened for the trait. Of the 13 carriers on the current squad, only one knew before the test. The Sooners health staff advises coaches to accommodate SCT-positive athletes by tailoring workouts to decrease the risk of sickling.

“There is a dangerous setting that should be avoided,” Anderson said, “and we’re able to do it without athletes feeling discriminated against.”

Anderson spoke specifically about SCT-positive athletes being vulnerable on the first day of football conditioning drills, when players work out intensely, in short circuits, over a short duration — the kind of drills Darling now handles with extra caution.

“Living with the trait,” Darling said, “I know not to put myself through too much, too fast. I know not to think about letting my team down but to think of the consequences.”

Life or death is the fate Darling is forced to consider every time he trains for an NFL career he wishes he could share with his twin.

Contact the writer: masmith@ocregister.com

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