The father of Matthew Gfeller spoke candidly Wednesday about the circumstances of the fatal injuries that his son sustained during a football game nearly 11 years ago.
Robert Gfeller, the executive director and chief operating officer of the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, participated Wednesday in the Twin City Talks Community Forum, which was sponsored by the Winston-Salem Journal and OrthoCarolina.
The forum’s topic was “Pushing the limits: sports are supposed to be fun, not dangerous.” Dr. S. Bradley Winter, a physician with OrthoCarolina, and Patrick Ferlise, a Journal reporter who covers high-school sports, also spoke at the forum. About 50 people attended the event.
Gfeller said that Matthew, who was 15 at the time, was playing linebacker for the Reynolds High School defense when the offense for Greensboro Page ran a routine running play in the fourth quarter of their game in August 2008 in Deaton-Thompson Stadium in Winston-Salem.
Matthew was blocked by a Page lineman, with Matthew making helmet-to-helmet contact with that player, Gfeller said. The impact knocked Matthew out, and he lay on the field unconscious for several minutes before he was taken to Brenner’s Children Hospital.
Matthew underwent surgery, but his surgeon, Dr. (Charles) Branch, said that his son had suffered a catastrophic injury, Gfeller said.
“We didn’t know what that meant,” Gfeller said, referring to his wife, Lisa, and himself. “But having worked at the Childress Institute and Matthew (Gfeller) Center, we now know what that is.”
Matthew died two days later, and then the Gfellers began learning about concussions and traumatic brain injuries, Robert Gfeller said. In 2009, the family created the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, which works to prevent and treat sports injuries.
The Gfellers also worked with researchers at the UNC Chapel Hill to establish the Matthew Gfeller Center, which studies concussions and brain injuries.
“This is very therapeutic for me that I can talk about Matt,” Gfeller said. “Matt is not here, but he’s here spiritually. He was all about football.”
Gfeller also pointed to the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act, which state legislators approved in June 2011, that is designed to protect the safety of student-athletes in North Carolina. All 50 states have laws addressing sports injuries, especially concussions, Gfeller said. Parents are learning more about these injuries and how to prevent them, he said.
Winter, who specializes in sports medicine, knee, shoulder and elbow injuries, said that children and teenagers are less likely to sustain injuries by playing several sports rather than focusing on just one sport. Youths who play one sport often can overuse and strain their muscles for that activity, which leads to injuries, he said.
“The culture is that if you are not playing and not competing, you are falling behind,” Winter said.
Many parents are aware of dangers that their children who plays sports face, Ferlise said. The N.C. High School Athletic Association has implemented measures to reduce injuries among high-school athletes, he said.
“It’s hard for kids to sit out, and it’s hard for kids to find their limits,” Ferlise said.