Former high school football player sues Highlands over head injuries

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A former high school football player who still struggles with symptoms of brain trauma sued the Highlands School District Thursday in U.S. District Court, alleging that his coach and trainer improperly sent him back into games after violent, damaging collisions.

Zachary Alt, 19, of Fawn, also claims in the lawsuit that school administrators shuffled him through classes after a particularly severe head injury, allowing him to graduate though he was barely able to do schoolwork.

"It has been a nightmare, to say the least," said his mother, Megan Alt, at a news conference Thursday. "It has changed my whole family."

In a written statement, school district officials declined to comment, saying they had not yet reviewed the lawsuit.

"When the lawsuit is presented, the district solicitor, Mr. Ira Weiss, will respond through the court system," said spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski.

The issue of young football players sustaining head injuries -- particularly concussions -- has gained traction across the state recently, spurring legislative bills and awareness campaigns.

At least two Western Pennsylvania boys have received fatal concussions during high school football practices during the last six years.

Mr. Alt's head injuries were life-altering, his mother said. Since a helmet-to-helmet collision with a linebacker in 2007, the young man has experienced hot flashes, depression, insomnia, nausea, dry heaves and vomiting, she said.

"I don't want to stop football..." Ms. Alt said. "But I do want to stop this from happening to other kids. He's never going to be the same again."

Mr. Alt sat silently through the news conference, his face somber. His lawyer, Robert Peirce III, said the young man's mother would speak on his behalf.

Ms. Alt said her son began playing football at age 8, and later joined the varsity team at Highlands High School, often playing fullback despite his smaller size.

"He really was known as being tough as nails..." Mr. Peirce said. "He was proud that he was able to do it."

The injuries the lawsuit details stem from the fall 2007 season, when Mr. Alt was a 15-year-old sophomore.

According to the legal complaint, he sustained a serious hit to the head during an Oct. 12 game, but continued to play. He was not evaluated by staff, his lawyer claimed. The same thing happened Nov. 2, according to the complaint.

Then, Nov. 9, during a playoff game against Knoch High School, Mr. Alt collided with another player helmet-to-helmet.

"Clearly disoriented," Mr. Alt jogged off laboriously, then began to "aimlessly" walk on the sidelines, the complaint alleges.

Mr. Alt was not removed from the game, despite teammates' worries, according to the complaint. Instead, he was instructed to go after the opposing team's middle linebacker, the complaint claims.

"He went to make the block, went as hard as he could, and that's the last thing he remembers," Mr. Peirce said.

After the game, Ms. Alt took her son to the emergency room at the Alle-Kiski Medical Center, where staff diagnosed a substantial head injury, according to the complaint.

Throughout the year, the boy's schoolwork and attendance declined, his mother said. But despite missing much of the spring semester, he received nearly straight A's that year, the complaint claims. He eventually graduated.

Mr. Alt's lawsuit also names the school's principal, assistant principal, football coach athletic trainer as defendants.

The suit was filed federally because Mr. Alt's lawyers believe the school's actions violated his constitutional right to an education, they said. The complaint seeks damages in excess of $75,000, the standard for federal court.

"He is unable to work an eight-hour day." Mr. Peirce said of his client.

"He tries to work," Mr. Peirce added. "His mother is an operator with a local cleaning business. He tries to clean when he can. Other times he will clean a local office building and will have to lie down after an hour."

Ms. Alt's younger son, a student in the same district, has since asked to play football, she said. She refused.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413. Staff writer Malak Shaher contributed.


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