Our Son Didn't Have to Die on the Football Field

There's a better way to play this lethal sport

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It was a typical August evening in the panhandle of Florida—nice, clear, warm and relatively humid. There was a tinge of excitement in the air as students and parents geared up for a much-anticipated high school football rivalry: Niceville vs. Fort Walton Beach game at the Fort Walton Beach HS stadium.

The stands of the stadium overflowed with fans eager to experience the bliss of victory. Dubbed the “kickoff classic” it was the first game of the year—technically a preseason game, although you couldn’t tell from the diehard crowd chanting and sporting its team colors. The first half of the game was devoted to the Junior Varsity squads while the second half would be dedicated to the Varsity teams.

Taylor Haugen, or “T” as he was known to his friends, was playing wide receiver on the JV squad. At 15 years old, he had played football for five years and was a fan favorite.

T wasn’t a natural born athlete as far as coordination goes. He had tremendous endurance, but he lacked in hand-eye coordination—the very thing that qualifies most players to become receivers. But he simply wouldn’t accept that he couldn’t play the game. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve his skills. He stayed after practice every single day and caught passes until there was no one left to throw to him. Then, he would bike over to his middle school and assist the coaches with training their receivers as well. He was extremely focused on football and community service. T had one speed and it was "all-out."

T didn’t see two defensive players charging at him.

T’s mom, Kathy Haugen, watched the game from the stands like she had done so many times since he first donned a helmet. Her husband Brian Haugen couldn’t make it because he was called to Mobile, Ala., for active duty as a National Guardsman in preparation for Hurricane Gustov.

Not too long after the game began T was lined up wide to the right and ran a quick cut route across the center of the field. The ball was thrown high, forcing T to jump in order to catch it. His thin frame stretched out, both arms reaching high above his head to receive the pass. T didn’t see two defensive players charging at him front, both sides. He was hit simultaneously by the linebacker and defensive back, both hitting him on the right side of his abdominal area in a gruesome, but clean hit.

T stayed down for just a second and then stood up, holding his side in apparent pain. He tried to go back to the huddle but the coaches waived him to the sideline. T was rather miffed that he was being called out but he followed orders. He began to jog, still holding his side in obvious pain, but as he approached the sideline, his jog turned to a walk which became a bit of a stagger. His liver was crushed and he was bleeding internally. He collapsed on the sideline, lost consciousness and never regained it.

After being rushed to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, the surgeons worked on T all night. Around 11:30 p.m. they informed his parents that he was out of surgery and would be moved to ICU shortly. Later that night, the doctors finally asked to see the Haugens.

“We were thrilled to finally get a chance to found out how T was coming along,” Brian Haugen remembered. “When they asked us to follow them to another room and I saw that it was a tiny, little chapel I almost stopped. It was like that bad scene from a movie, the scene right before the family gets the sad news. I couldn’t believe this was happening and what they had to say was even worse.”

The doctors reported that T was in bad shape. His injury was severe and unlike anything they had seen outside of a major high-speed car accident. It didn’t look good for him.

“One of the doctors who remained with us was a dear, close friend,” Brian continued, “He sat with us for a while and cried and prayed with us for some time. Then, we moved on to ICU without speaking to any of the hundreds of waiting players, coaches, cheerleaders, community leaders, friends and family from both teams. They were all told to go home and that T would soon be in ICU.”

Brian and Kathy Haugen were allowed to see their son around 2 a.m. He was not conscious but they sat there with him, praying and hoping for his recovery.

So far in 2013, there have already been five deaths of high school students from football injuries.

“At about 8:30 a.m., the doctor pulled me aside and said that they had done all they could and that we should talk about turning off the life support systems," Brian recalled. "Somehow, we were able to discuss this inevitability through uncontrollable sobs and cries and prayer. After stalling awhile between sobs and prayers, I signed the forms to end my son’s life. Then, in horror, we held him in our arms as he passed away.”

Football injures have been in the news quite a bit lately since the National Football League paid damages to retired football players who sued because of head injuries. As medical issues from playing the full contact sport come under scrutiny, even children and college students are not immune. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, there is an average of 12.2 deaths in high school and college football every year. So far in 2013, there have already been five deaths of high school students from football injuries.

In 2009, the year following T's death, Brian and Kathy Haugen grieved the loss of their son, trying to keep his memory alive. In memoriam, T’s friends decided to start a scholarship fund in Taylor’s name. They sold T-shirts and held fundraising activities. “Before we knew it, the school was calling to ask where to send the funds,” Brian said. “We didn’t even have an account set up, so we said let’s just set up a nonprofit foundation and go from there.”

After the Taylor Haugen Foundation was established, the Haugens received numerous offers to partner with other organizations. “The All Sports Association approached us about creating a Taylor Haugen Trophy. They are the proponents for the highly coveted Danny Wuerffel trophy and they thought that this new endeavor could be the high school similarity. That’s how we met Tim Tebow,” Brian remembered.

Instead, the Haugens decided to start an organization that would have helped T, had it be around when he was playing football. The Taylor Haugen Foundation promotes the Youth Equipment for Sports Safety Program (YESS). The purpose is to educate and equip middle school and high school students with the type of new generation equipment commonly worn by college and professional players, but unknown to youth athletes and their parents.

Five years after the death of their son, the YESS program received a boost when they partnered with EvoShield, a company that offers protective gear for athletes. The Haugens believe this type of gear would have offered their son a longer life. Aside from actively discussing the dangers of being harmed during youth sports, the Taylor Haugen Foundation has donated nearly 800 protective rib shirts to youth across the country.

“It is always a tough dichotomy for a parent; keep your kid from playing sports because of your worries or allow your child to enjoy the sport he loves"

“To our knowledge, we are the only nonprofit in the country that focuses on abdominal injury protection,” Brian said. “This area is simply not given enough respect considering the abundance of injuries that occur. We had two local high school football players from two different teams suffer abdominal injuries. One was a ruptured spleen and the other was a liver laceration. We knew that we could no longer sit back and do nothing while our kids continued to be injured, not when we knew of a product that could make a difference. That’s when we decided to act.”

Although the Haugens' lives were changed forever that warm day in 2008, they say they do not regret allowing their son to live out his passion. “It is always a tough dichotomy for a parent: Keep your kid from playing sports because of your worries or allow your child to enjoy the sport he loves, thus bending to their wishes,” Brian shared. “A protective parent is one who does the research to find out how best to protect their children in order to allow them to play their sports with more safety.”

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