One of the things Connie Stiles would remember about the day her son died was how routine it was. Treadmill. Starbucks. Late for work. Run home. Let the dog out. McDonald's. Game time.
It was Thursday, October 28, the last day of the Spring Hill High School football season. Stiles' son, Nathan, played running back and linebacker for the Broncos, whose home field is carved out of a cornfield south of Olathe. He had dark hair, broad shoulders and an easy smile, traits that helped crown him homecoming king earlier in the season.
As Stiles raced to make her son's game that evening, Nathan and his teammates traveled 20 miles south on K-7 to Osawatomie High School. The stakes were low: The two teams began the night with identical 1-7 records.
As if trying to make up for a season's worth of futility, both teams kept scoring. Nathan, a 17-year-old senior, ran for two touchdowns in the first quarter, which ended with Spring Hill leading 32-30.
A forgettable season was building toward an epic conclusion. But late in the first half, Stiles noticed Nathan "walking off the field kind of funny." Down on the sidelines, her son complained to an assistant coach, "My head is really hurting." He took a seat on the bench, but then he stood up and collapsed.
The 911 call went out at 8:23 p.m. After making her way to the field, Stiles watched her son raise his left arm before the helicopter airlifted him to the University of Kansas Medical Center. She and her husband, Ron, then made an excruciating drive to Kansas City, Kansas.
Surgeons tried to stop the bleeding in Nathan's brain as the hospital's waiting room filled. Nathan was active in a church youth group and popular at school.
But Nathan never regained consciousness. Doctors took him off life support around 4 a.m.
Suspicion turned immediately to a concussion that Nathan had sustained three weeks before, in the school's homecoming game. He sat out two games and was cleared to play October 22.
A cause of death has not been released. But high school football players who died in similar circumstances provide a clue. A rare phenomenon called "second impact syndrome" occurs when an athlete suffers a head injury before a previous concussion's symptoms — headache, blurred vision, difficulty concentrating — have fully subsided. Even a minor hit can cause rapid, and almost always fatal, brain swelling. Teenagers, their brains not fully developed, are most vulnerable.
Nathan's parents were models of courage in the days after his death. Connie Stiles threw herself into a project to bring young people closer to God by making sure students who attended a memorial service at the school were offered free Bibles. Ron Stiles told the mourners — among them Nathan's teammates, whose jerseys were tucked into dress pants — that the family was not looking for anyone to blame. "This event was no one's fault," he said, resisting the impulse to cope with tragedy by assigning liability.
Ron and Connie Stiles said they wanted their son's example to promote concussion safety. "If you're not well, get well," Ron Stiles told the students at the memorial service.
As it happened, football's capacity to damage brains was already on America's mind when Nathan collapsed. Earlier that week, the National Football League had fined three players a total of $175,000 for a Sunday's worth of violent hits. Stomach-turning video of players launching themselves into one another aired on ESPN for days.
Along with serving as a deterrent, the fines were part of a PR campaign to prove that the league was taking its concussion crisis seriously. The NFL has given $1 million to fund the research of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a sort of trauma-induced Alzheimer's disease. The first case was found in Mike Webster, the former Chiefs center who won four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster, who finished his playing career in Kansas City, was sleeping in the Pittsburgh Amtrak station at the time of his death at age 50.