The fourth quarter play appeared routine enough. Peter Webb was chasing a quarterback after a high snap, eventually pulling his opponent to the ground for a tackle and slamming his head to the ground. Webb never returned to his feet, and paramedics later rushed the 16-year-old to a hospital.
He remained in critical condition with a traumatic brain injury until he was pronounced dead on Sunday morning, and by the time Southwest Covenant students returned to the small Christian school in the Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday morning, their headmaster had written a painful letter on Facebook in the wake of the loss.
“The school family at Southwest Covenant greatly appreciates the love, prayers, and support that we have been shown amid this recent tragedy,” Steve Lessman wrote. “Peter Webb passed away as a result of an injury suffered during the football game on Friday, September 13th.”
Webb’s death wasn’t the only tragedy to occur on a high school football field that night: About 1,100 miles east, in Clay, West Virginia, senior Alex Miller, 17, collapsed on the sideline during the first half of a game and later died at a nearby hospital. While it remains unclear what caused Miller’s death, both tragedies have rocked the small communities where football is an important part of their fabric, and provided some with a stark reminder of how dangerous the sport can be.
“It’s devastating,” said Mike Thompson, the president of Oklahoma’s Eight-Man Coaches Association, which provided Facebook updates on Webb’s condition throughout the weekend. “Obviously, it’s a football game. There’s a chance there’s a contact injury. … There was a race for the ball and there was a collision.”
Deaths on the football field are rare — of the 4.2 million participants at all levels of the sport in 2018, nine players died due to direct and indirect causes, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. But of the 50 total deaths on the football field between 2015 and 2018, 36 were high school players.
“This is a very rare thing that struck home,” Lessman said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Webb was a standout athlete in football, basketball and baseball despite being an underclassman at the small private school in Yukon, Okla., the fourth of five brothers whom “all would say that Peter was going to be the best of all,” Lessman wrote in his statement on Monday. Southwest Covenant’s eight-man football team, which plays in the Class C division in Oklahoma and was a state-runner up last season, was scheduled to suit up again on Friday night for Homecoming, but will not play. A memorial service for Webb will be held on Friday morning, with Lessman officiating.
“It’s a tremendous loss no matter what the size of the community, but we’re talking eight-man football in Oklahoma, which is limited to the smallest 80 schools,” Thompson said. “Everybody knows everybody, and everybody’s kids, in those small, tightknit communities.”
Thompson said the outpouring of support has come from all corners of the country, as it has in Roane County, West Virginia, where schools superintendent Dr. Richard Duncan was still trying to piece together the circumstances surrounding Miller’s death on Friday night. Witnesses told Duncan that Miller collapsed on the sideline after the team had come off the field following the first quarter during a game against Clay County High School. Miller, a wide receiver and defensive back, appeared to have a promising first quarter: he was involved in many plays and helped his defense come up with an interception.
“That’s been part of the puzzle,” Duncan said. “That’s kind of the thing everyone has remarked on that was there, that there was no particular hit or play that they saw that he was involved in that gave them pause.”
A teammate reported that Miller had said something about becoming “dizzy,” according to Duncan, before being transported to the hospital. The game was suspended indefinitely. The state medical examiner’s office is looking into the death, Duncan said, and the investigation isn’t expected to be completed for another few days.
Duncan opened the school for faculty, staff and students to grieve together on Saturday, and a candlelight vigil was held later that evening. The loss was felt across the state: At nearby Marshall University, a moment of silence was held before the Thundering Herd’s game Saturday night against Ohio. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice released a statement in support, and Duncan began to mull ideas to honor Miller for the rest of the season.
As superintendent in the small county, Duncan had mourned the passing of other children over the years, including in car wrecks and last year when a student passed away due to an apparent carbon monoxide poisoning leak inside his home. This was the first time he witnessed one happen on a football field.
“Those events happened in ways that we knew what happened,” Duncan said. “This one was sudden and unexplained, and very public. It was right there at a football game.”
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