Sorrow and Scrutiny After a Teenager’s Death at Football Practice


“My immediate thought is that Navy SEAL training is brutally hard, generally, for men in the mid-20s who are some of the best athletes in the whole world. And most of them don’t make it through the training,” said Dr. Casa, the chief executive of the Korey Stringer Institute, an organization based in Connecticut focused on preventing the deaths of athletes. “Most of the best athletes in the world can’t make it through. This is not a good idea for kids to be doing.”

The attention has provoked a sense of defensiveness in the Sachem East community, which spans several mostly white, middle class towns on Long Island. (Sachem East is one of two high schools in the district; Farmingville is part of the larger town of Brookhaven.) As they grieved, Sachem parents and students remained careful not to point fingers and were protective of the coaches overseeing the training camp where Mr. Mineta died. Many insisted the community needed to grieve before turning to the cause of the fatal accident.

“After he passed, people started gravitating to asking, ‘What if we had done this? What if we had done that? What if we didn’t do that drill?’ But that’s the same thing that happens in any tragedy,” said Ryan Leone, 20, a recent Sachem East graduate who was on the field visiting when Mr. Mileto was fatally injured. He helped the coaches, whom he knew, provide emergency aid to Mr. Mileto.

“These coaches would not have done something that they didn’t feel comfortable supervising or that would hurt the kids,’’ Mr. Leone said. “I think it’s just wrong to look at it from that perspective.”

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A tribute to Mr. Mileto hung at the field in Farmingville where he died. Mr. Mileto wore the number five on his football jersey.

Credit
Heather Walsh for The New York Times

“The biggest concern was someone stubbing their toe,’’ he added. “This just wasn’t being done in an unsafe way.”

The accident happened just after 8:30 a.m. last Thursday. Mr. Leone said he was startled when someone shouted repeatedly, “Coach, call 9-1-1!” Mr. Leone sprinted toward the commotion and joined several adults and coaches attempting to treat Mr. Mileto, whose face was covered in blood.

One coach, Chris Di’Iorio, performed CPR as Mariano Gonzalez, the team’s trainer, applied pressure to the wound. Mr. Leone and another coach tried to keep Mr. Mileto breathing but, according to Mr. Leone, they could not find a pulse.

Mr. Mileto’s mother arrived on the scene soon after he was placed into an ambulance. They drove to Stony Brook University Hospital — she rode in the front seat — where Mileto was pronounced dead.

The use of the log drill has come under scrutiny particularly because deaths during practice are so rare. Several of the coaches declined to comment for this article — including head coach Mark Wojciechowski — and it was not clear if the team had performed the log drill before.

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Mourners outside the funeral, which came the day after the football season was to begin.

Credit
Heather Walsh for The New York Times

After initial inquiries by The Times about safety protocols to Dr. Ken Graham, the superintendent of the Sachem Central School District, a communications consultant said in an email that the district was not involved in the training camp. Though the practice took place on the school’s field and included the school’s coaches, it was overseen by the Sachem East Touchdown Club, which raises money for the football club.

The president and vice president for the club did not return calls requesting comment.

Mr. Mileto’s death does not neatly fit into the existing national conversation about the safety of contact football, which centers primarily on preventing and treating concussions. But it does raise some of the same concerns those involved in youth sports often cite, including how hard coaches push youngsters during training or whether they take unnecessary risks for the sake of gaining an edge.

More than a million high school athletes play tackle football each year across the country. While injuries are common, deaths are rare, and traumatic injury deaths themselves typically happen during games rather than training sessions, said Dr. Kristen Kucera, a sports science expert and the director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Kucera said she had not previously heard of high school students using a log to train.

Dr. Casa said it was unfortunate that there was no national governing body for high school sports, as there is for college sports, that can regulate safety standards for practices. Instead, the process is handled by state associations to varying degrees of efficacy. He also worried that medical experts are not always consulted when local administrators are setting safety standards.

“Medical people don’t set medical policies,’’ he said. “These are athletic administrators that set policies. That shocks any parent that I tell that.”

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A memorial to Mr. Mileto outside Sachem High School East.

Credit
Heather Walsh for The New York Times

And identifying who should have the final say in conversations about safety regulations can also be contentious.

Chris Boone, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said that individual schools, school districts and state associations determine practice regulations through agreements that differ from state to state. Robert Zayas, the executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, said that the organization does not have any specific rules or regulations that dictate what is permitted in training. He said the association does, however, have standards related to concussion management. “We have a lot of safety measures in place, but no rules and regulations,” he added.

“I’m not going to comment on the conditioning drill that a coach was conducting,’’ Mr. Zayas said. “The number of drills and conditioning practices that we see throughout New York and throughout the country vary greatly. As teams are conditioning in the off-season, it’s left up to the discretion of the coaches.”

The Sachem Central School District said in a statement on Wednesday that it “will assess the status of the team’s activities over the course of the next several days.” The district said that in addition to a police investigation, an internal district investigation had also been opened.

Mr. Leone, who is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and was visiting home before the new school year, had worked as a coach with middle school students as part of the Sachem East Touchdown Club and knew the coaches on the team. He said he was not sure if the log drill had been used in previous training sessions.

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Members of Mr. Mileto’s football team at his funeral.

Credit
Heather Walsh for The New York Times

“I think that image deeply affected the coaches that were there,’’ Mr. Leone said, referring to Mr. Mileto’s injuries. “I just hope they never have to see anything like this again. I keep seeing his face pop into my head.”

Stephanie Caleb, a senior at Sachem East, said that everyone at the school was devastated by the loss. Her boyfriend, who is on the football team, was close with Mr. Mileto. She said that the intense media attention on his death made it difficult to grieve in peace.

There was deep anger at the news media, Ms. Caleb said, ‘‘and the news reporters invading everybody’s privacy. It’s not completely wrong to ask for information, but showing up and filming everybody outside the funeral, that’s not right.”

Mr. Mileto’s official obituary pulls at the heartstrings: “To Josh his community was a part of his family and the feeling was mutual,” it read. He loved his friends, sports, music and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.’’ He kissed his mother daily, the obituary noted.

“We are absolutely beyond devastated,” wrote his mother, Sayyida Mileto, in a Facebook post. “We are in no way able to respond or speak to anyone at this point.”

Many of his classmates, as teenagers do, expressed their grief on Facebook and Instagram. They posted photo montages with long tributes; they changed their user profiles to include crying emojis and praying hands; they shared photos of him in his football jersey, No. 5, ready to play.

Correction: August 18, 2017

Because of an editing error an earlier version of this article provided the incorrect day for Joshua Mileto’s wake. His wake was Monday, not Tuesday. The error was repeated in a caption in one of the photographs.

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