New Jersey football standout Braeden Bradforth arrived at Garden City Community College on July 30, 2018.  Two days later, he was dead.

Braeden Bradforth was his mother’s baby.

At 6’3” and 300 pounds, he was a big baby, but he was still Joanne Atkins-Ingram’s baby.

In late July 2018, with her blessings, her baby boarded a plane to Garden City, KS, where he had been recruited to be a defensive tackle for the Garden City Community College Broncbusters.

His entire family thought it was a step in the right direction for the recent Neptune (New Jersey) High School standout. They were excited about this next step, but instead it turned out to be Braeden’s last step.

On Wed., Aug. 1, just days after arriving in Garden City, Braeden collapsed after two strenuous football practices in the grueling summer heat. Just days after leaving home enthusiastic about his future, the 19-year-old gentle-giant was dead.

Six months later, Ingram made a similar trip. This time with dread, she boarded a plane to Garden City. She was looking for answers. Answers she’d found difficult to obtain 1,600 miles away.

She wanted to hear firsthand what happened, that terrible day.

“I wanted to see where my child had his last moments,” said Ingram. “I knew nothing about the last moments of my child’s life.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

Administrators and representatives of Garden City Community had not been very forthcoming about the events of that day. In fact, her contact with them had been minimal to none.

There was that dreadful call from the school’s athletic director informing her of Braeden’s death, but then Garden City Football Coach Jeff Sims “never picked up a phone,” said Ingram.

Sims had plenty to say to the press though. He immediately opened up to the press, informing them Braeden’s death was caused by a blood clot. “It was an act of God.” He took absolutely no blame.

Attorney Jill Greene, a 20-year friend of Ingram’s made the trip to Garden City with her.

“They’re counsel told me, Greene said “‘We’re doing an internal review. When we finish, myself and the administrative staff and the board of trustees will make a decision about what documents will be released to you.’”

“We got lots of answers,” Greene told us, “but we didn’t get them from the people we needed to get them from.”

Here’s the facts, Green and Ingram say were confirmed by several of the Broncbuster players.

It was hot, in the 80s with a high relative humidity, with a “feels like” temperature in the 90s.

Most of the other players had been in Garden City for weeks or months undergoing training and conditioning. Braeden was a late arrival. He made a late decision to attend Garden City and had arrived on campus just two days before.

There were two practices that day. The afternoon practice was intense and consisted of 36, 60-yard runs in under eight seconds.

Braeden was obviously struggling with the workout.

There was a team meeting that evening and Braden failed to show up. No one was sent to look for him.

After the meeting, at approximately 9:30 p.m., one of the players found Braeden on the ground outside his dorm with head up against the building. He was obviously in distress.

Instead of calling EMS, the player called the coach, who called an assistant coach and then a trainer before calling EMS at 10:04 p.m., a clear 30 minutes later.

EMS arrived, worked on Braeden, then transported him to St. Catherine’s Hospital. He was admitted at 10:36 p.m., a full hour after he was found, and pronounced dead at 11:06 p.m.

Although the university has held tight to any information they have surrounding Braeden’s death. One bit of information that has been released is the autopsy. It was finally released in December.

The findings by an independent pathologist, and supported by the county’s coroner, are very clear about the cause of death. The report says Braeden died from heat stroke and that there were absolutely no signs of a blood clot or heart-related issues.

CHANGE PLEASE 

Ingram is upset that it took so long for anyone to call EMS, and she feels certain that if they had been called earlier, Braeden would still be alive.

But an even bigger concern for her is making sure what happened to Braeden doesn’t happen to anyone else, particularly other players at GCCC.

Sadly, anyone who follows sports knows Braeden is the first athlete to die of heat stroke. Attention to the problem first began to surface in 2001 following the heatstroke-related death of Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl tackle Korey Stringer.

According to reports compiled by a number of sources, and average of three football players on all level die from heat stroke, but lately the numbers have been increasing. Since 1995 the death of at least 50 athletes have been attributed to heat stroke.

While attention has been brought to the problem with overexertion and heat stroke in practice, coaches like Sims, still continue to run what some professionals we spoke to called “over the top” practices. They’re also not adequately trained to recognize the signs of heat stroke and/or understand how to treat it.

Quick response and corrective action are the keys. With them, deaths from heatstroke are easy to prevent. The best treatment is to put the affected athlete in an ice or cold water bath as a way to quickly lower their body temperature. 

LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

Versus treating heat stroke, the goal Ingram and her family want to see are rules and policies that keep heat stroke from occurring.

For years, there have been fairly clear standards developed around practices under high heat conditions. Some of those were obviously ignored in Braeden’s case, such as:

Acclimate to heat gradually. Practices for the first few days should be shorter and less intense. Braeden had only been on campus two days, he should not have been asked or expected to perform at the same level as the other athletes.

Identify athletes at greater risk. Some athletes are more susceptible to heat illness than others, among them are athletes who are overweight, particularly heavy linemen who tend to have higher ratios of body fat and whose bodies needed more time to acclimate to the heat.

Learn the warning signs. It is imperative that all coaches, trainers, and players are on the lookout for signs of dehydration or heat illness, such as fatigue, lethargy, inattention, stupor, and/or awkwardness. But they must first be trained and understand that these are signs of particularly dangerous heat stroke.

Even though Sims failed to follow these fairly simple rules he was moved up, and not out. Yes, Sims, who was the coach leading the over-the-top practice in disregard for Braeden’s safety was promoted. In November, he was pegged as the new head coach at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

NCAA may finally weigh in

Last month, the NCAA’s board of governors gave initial approval to a measure aimed at preventing non-traumatic deaths in offseason workouts. It is expected be enacted this spring following an amendment process.

The document outlines how schools should acclimate student-athletes into workouts following low-activity periods, which carry greater risk of injury or death because players have not yet adjusted to strenuous drills. It would also discourage the use of intensive workouts as a form of punishment, and establish how to properly diagnose and treat heatstroke.

“It’s a huge leap forward,” Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute told Sporting News, “because frankly, and we state this in the document, the vast majority of these non-traumatic catastrophic deaths and injuries are preventable.”

Still, it’s unclear how the best practices would be enforced, or whether the NCAA would eventually penalize institutions that don’t abide by the guidelines.

An NCAA spokesman said the best practices currently being reviewed are the result of an NCAA-hosted information-gathering summit in 2016. That said, the document uses recommendations from a 2012 inter-association task force — composed of leading organizations in the sports medicine industry — that met independent of the NCAA and presented its findings in hopes of being formally adopted by the organization.

“If (the NCAA) had endorsed that back in 2012, there’s a really good chance the deaths that have happened since 2012 would have never happened,” Dr. Douglas Casa head of the Korey Stringer Institute, which was founded in the wake of Stringer’s 2001 death. They’ve been working to bring about change ever since.

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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