Focus on safety sharpens

Fatalities: The death of Cornell's George Boiardi has fueled a renewed effort to find ways to prevent fatal events on the field.

College Lacrosse

May 27, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala could not begin to recount the number of times he has been hit hard by a lacrosse ball.

When he was an All-America defenseman at Hopkins in the late 1980s, Pietramala did anything to disrupt his opponent, starting with a stick check or physical contact to dislodge the ball.

He also did not think twice about stepping in front of a shooter, either to cut off his view of the goal or to block his shot. It wasn't unusual for him to jump in front of his goalkeeper to seal the cage - and pay by absorbing a hard shot to the upper body.

Pietramala said his views on playing and coaching defense have been forever altered. For him, things changed dramatically March 17, when Cornell defenseman George Boiardi collapsed and died after being hit in the upper chest by a shot in a game against Binghamton.

Boiardi's death has shaken up the lacrosse community, which wonders if players could be effectively shielded by chest protectors and if the game's rules should be modified.

It also is trying to better understand the nature of commotio cordis - a rare event that occurs when a person is struck in the chest at the precise millisecond the heart is beginning its beat and triggers cardiac arrest - which doctors suspect has claimed five players in the past 22 years, including four in the past five years.

Lacrosse representatives at the youth, high school and collegiate levels are looking for ways to make the game safer. Laboratory tests to produce an adequate chest protector for all players, including goalies (the only players required to wear one), are ongoing.

And U.S. Lacrosse, the Baltimore-based governing body for youth lacrosse, has recommended that the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations adopt a rule this summer that would penalize players who step in front of a shot to block it.

Boiardi's death struck a personal note with Pietramala because he had signed Boiardi at Cornell, shortly before taking the Hopkins job in spring 2000.

It also jarred the coach's thinking as to how players can be better protected from harm, by improvements in equipment or changing the way the game is played. For starters, Pietramala said he has dispensed with the idea of letting defenders purposely put themselves in the direct path of shots that routinely reach 90 mph.

"It was in my makeup and my teammates' makeup that, if a guy is taking a shot, we come out on the head of the [shooter's] stick and make him shoot around you [or hit you]," he said. "That's the way I played. But I can't in good conscience ever tell my guys to do that. I can never say that again.

"If I told a kid to do that and something [tragic] happened, I'd have to get out of coaching. The bottom line is we've lost some lives in our game, and we need to look at a way to prevent that. We owe that to George Boiardi."

Boiardi was not the first men's lacrosse player to die after being struck in the chest. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, two other collegiate players and a high school player have died under those circumstances in the past five years and a fifth unidentified player earlier; data first began to be collected in 1982.

Other sports whose fatalities from all causes since 1982 have been greater than lacrosse's are football (97), track (20), baseball (10) and soccer (six).

Although no autopsy was performed on Boiardi, doctors who study the phenomenon say they suspect he died because of commotio cordis. This usually occurs in teenage or slightly older men with typically more pliable chest walls.

Major obstacles

The U.S. Lacrosse Sports, Science and Safety Committee is hoping that a prototype chest protector will be developed to stave off commotio cordis. But the obstacles are formidable, said Dr. Barry Maron, who studies cardiovascular risks related to athletes at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

Maron said commotio cordis often results in cases in which the victim has been struck at much lower velocities than a Division I lacrosse shot.

"It's a rare occurrence and a complex event. We know of kids who have died after getting hit in the chest by a snowball or while shadowboxing. These are blows that are not particularly hard," said Maron, who believes that each of the recent lacrosse deaths he has studied is traced to the cardiac incident.

That includes the University of Massachusetts' Eric Sopracasa, who died in 1999, as well as Todd Bernhardt of the Rochester Institute of Technology (2001) and Northport (N.Y.) High School's Louis Acompora (2000).

"We don't have a chest protector that has been demonstrated under lab conditions to be protective," Maron added. "At this moment, there isn't really a way to advise people how to be safer."

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