Dylan Thomas needed to be helped from the football field after hurting his leg. But then he passed out and was rushed to the hospital, and an unexpected tragedy loomed for his family and classmates.
Sixteen-year-old linebacker Dylan Thomas could tell something wasn’t right in the middle of his high-school football game. He fell and his leg hurt – or at least that’s what he said as he was assisted off of the field. But something much worse was lingering beneath the superficial injury.
According to Thomas’ uncle, Nick Burgess, his teenage nephew “had the biggest heart.” He wrote on Facebook that Thomas was “an all-around wonderful kid” who loved fishing “[until] we couldn’t [anymore],” Burgess wrote.
Thomas lived in Griffin, Georgia, and attended Pike County High School, where he served as the football team’s linebacker. “He was an incredible young man with work ethic that you can’t believe. He was the heart and soul of our defense,” his coach, Brad Webber, told CNN.
But his uncle said that the 16-year-old did have one fear when it came to playing the sport. “[He] told me personally he was always scared to seriously hurt somebody on the field,” Burgess wrote. Thomas’ parents seemed to feel the same way – they purchased an NFL-quality Riddell SpeedFlex helmet to protect him from head injuries.
With that, Thomas continued to play and suited up on Friday, September 28, 2018, to hit the field with his team. Nothing of note happened during the game, until the third quarter, when Thomas fell to the ground.
Thomas hadn’t taken any notable hits, but his leg “was feeling weird,” he supposedly said. With a little bit of help, the linebacker made his way off of the field. Then an orthopedic surgeon and athletic trainer checked for any potential injuries.
But as the medical professionals asked Thomas questions, his words became incomprehensible. Then he passed out, falling from the bench on which he was sitting. He reportedly woke up to say, “I can’t feel my body,” before losing consciousness once more.
Thomas was then rushed to the hospital, leaving behind a stunned crowd of sports fans. After his coaches and fellow players – and their competitors from Peach County High School – said a prayer for Thomas’s well-being, they ended the game then and there.
Thomas’ condition was dire – it turned out that he had sustained a brain injury, although it was unclear when it had occurred. Something had caused the organ to swell, and Thomas needed surgery to relieve some of the strain on his brain.
The 16-year-old would then fall into a coma. By Sunday – two days after his football game – Thomas could no longer fight against the unexpected injury. School officials and family members confirmed that he had passed away.
To his football coach, the situation was made even more heartbreaking by the unclear cause of Thomas’ injury. “That makes it almost harder as well that we just didn’t know. If you know, you can prevent things. But just the way that happened, it’s devastating,” Webber said.
It’s not common for football players to pass away in these type of situations – in 2017, for instance, 13 participants died out of four million who took part in organized football leagues. Of those 13 deaths, only four could be linked to injuries or trauma sustained on the field.
In the wake of Thomas’s statistically rare death, his community rallied to support one another through their heartache. Jake Patterson, one of the linebacker’s teammates, told WSB that he knew the best way to honor his fallen friend.
“I want to get out there and play for him because that’s what he’d want for us. He’d want us to play for him instead of just quitting,” Patterson said. The rest of the county seemed to feel the same way, plastering images of Thomas’s jersey around town and sharing the hashtag #DylanStrong online.
Even the Atlanta Falcons, the Peach State’s NFL team, made a tribute to the young football player who passed away post-game. The organization welcomed Thomas’ parents and teammates and even flashed images of the teen on the big screens around Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Janice Brown, whose child played alongside Thomas on the Pike football team, said the experience in Atlanta was “nothing short of amazing” for the teammates left to grieve his loss. “This opportunity, even though it came from tragedy, has been a blessing and an honor,” she wrote.
She went on to say that her son had loved having the chance to visit Mercedes Benz Stadium, but that it was a bittersweet opportunity without Thomas there to see it too. “Dylan Thomas had the best seat in the house today, and was with each [and] every one of these boys,” Brown wrote in response.
At a football game closer to home, the Pike County High School community noticed a major coincidence. On October 12, Thomas’ team not only won their game, but the final scores was 17-15. As many pointed out, 17 plus 15 equaled 32, which was the 16-year-old’s jersey number.
Thomas’ uncle played a numbers game of his own. He started a Facebook fundraiser to gather money for his nephew’s parents, who were left with medical bills after losing their son. He set the donation goal at $30,000, but ended up bringing in more than $50,000.
And this sort of support was exactly what Pike County High School principal Kevin Huffstetler said would help everyone move forward after losing Thomas. “At times like this everybody comes together and they just wrap their arms around and try to love everyone,” he told CNN.