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Player death prompts sickle cell testing for Western Carolina student athletes

Western Carolina University has enacted mandatory testing for the sickle cell trait among all student athletes following the death of a football player during summer workout drills in July.

Ja’Quayvin Smalls, a junior defensive back from Mount Pleasant, S.C., was in excellent physical condition. The afternoon was not abnormally hot, nor were the drills particularly exhausting. The lack of other explanations points to the presence of the sickle-cell trait as the cause of Smalls’ death, though an autopsy is not complete.

The underlying presence of the sickle cell trait is a leading cause of death among college football players. Colleges are increasingly testing athletes for the trait, although WCU is at the forefront of the movement for schools of its size.

The trait can strike under heavy exertion and clogs the passage of blood cells through arteries. Cramping is a telltale sign of the onset of a sickle cell attack.

Smalls had complained of cramps during the workout and was taken to the sidelines under the care of an athletic trainer. Just minutes later, Smalls quit breathing. Trainers performed CPR until paramedics arrived, but Smalls was pronounced dead an hour later at Harris Regional Hospital.

“This has been a very emotional experience for all of us,” said Chip Smith, the athletic director at WCU. “It has made a difference in how we look at football and how we look at each other.”

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WCU Chancellor John Bardo said the character of the players on the team has been exceptional through the tragedy.

“I don’t care whether they win a game honestly,” Bardo said.

Several team members who came to the hospital following Smalls’s collapse joined in impromptu prayer when he was pronounced dead. The entire football team traveled to Charleston for his funeral. His headstone is being engraved with a WCU logo at the request of his family.

The sickle cell trait is found in one of 12 African Americans. WCU will test all student athletes regardless of race, however.

The blood test costs $10 per athlete. WCU has 330 student athletes across all sports. This year, the school will test all of them. In future years, only incoming athletes will be tested.

Students who test positive for the trait won’t be barred from the field.

“You can’t deny them the opportunity to play,” Smith said. “They can make an informed choice and decide for themselves whether to participate.”

Coaches and trainers will know which students have the trait, but will keep it a secret from the rest of the team. The first five days of team training will be less strenuous, giving the athletes a chance to acclimatize since the attacks are more prevalent during periods of high stress, Smith said.

The number of schools that test for the trait has increased in recent years, with more than 70 percent of conference schools testing for the trait. Among schools the size of Western, the number is far less.

The NCAA this summer adopted guidelines recommending that all student athletes be tested for the trait. The policy shift was prompted by a lawsuit against the NCAA by the family of a Rice University football player who died during practice in 2006 from a sickle cell attack.

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association has advocated for the mandatory testing of student athletes since 2007.

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