A traumatic brain injury contributed to Baltimore football player Elijah Gorham’s death, medical examiner says

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A traumatic brain injury contributed to the death of Baltimore high school football player Elijah Gorham, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Tuesday.

The 17-year-old wide receiver for Mervo High School died from cardiac arrest, multisystem organ failure, a traumatic brain injury and accidental trauma, said Bruce Goldfarb, spokesman for the Maryland medical examiner’s office. The teen died Monday in the hospital, and his death was considered an accident, so the office will not perform an autopsy, Goldfarb said.

During a football game Sept. 18, Gorham fell to the ground while trying to make a catch in the end zone. A Dunbar High School defender fell on top of him. Gorham stayed down in the end zone after the play, and eventually was relocated to the sideline, where he remained for about 45 minutes. He then was taken to a local hospital for treatment. It is not known whether that play was the cause of his injuries.

The next day, his coach said Gorham underwent surgery to address his injury, and it appeared successful. But on Monday, the team learned that Gorham had died.

Grief counselors have been on hand to meet with students, said Patrick Nixon, coach at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in East Baltimore.

“We have some kids that are still processing it, some kids are very emotional and some others that are just not ready to deal, so it’s a wide range of emotions,” Nixon said. “We’re trying to let them know it’s all OK. [In] Baltimore, oftentimes, these kids go through a lot and see a lot, and they tend to mask it and just push through. So we’re trying to get them a little more comfortable with opening up and being OK with their feelings.”

Demetriece Thomas, Mervo’s community coordinator, set up a GoFundMe page for Gorham’s family, and for an academic and athletic scholarship in his name. During a meeting of the city’s school board Tuesday night, chair Johnette A. Richardson said Gorham was one of five city school students who have died recently, as did a 2020 graduate.

“Elijah was caring and kind and he was always willing to check in on his friends, teachers and coaches to make sure they were doing OK” Richardson said. “He had an enigmatic smile and charisma that touched everyone who met him.”

Gorham’s family says he’ll be remembered for his charismatic and caring spirit. He was the first to help his fellow students when they had a problem, or offer a winning smile. He loved playing football, and could watch games on TV with his brother for hours, his family said.

Playing football was “what he loved to do,” Gorham’s brother, Donta Allen, said Monday. “And he loved to be around his friends and family/”

An Advanced Placement student, Gorham was a diligent young man who worked hard to attend the technical high school after spending his freshman year at Reginald Lewis High School.

His family members said they weren’t ready to make additional comments Tuesday.

For Marty McNair, father to Jordan McNair, who died after suffering a heat stroke at a University of Maryland football workout in May 2018, the news was painful, yet familiar. McNair was an offensive lineman at the McDonogh School before he started at Maryland.

“Unfortunately, I know what they’re experiencing too well,” McNair said. “This is the first time that a lot of these young people may have experienced the death of a teammate or someone that they cared about.”

That’s why it’s critical that mental health professionals be on hand for teammates as soon as a player suffers a serious injury, said McNair, founder of the Jordan McNair Foundation, which advocates for student-athlete safety. It is also critical that schools establish emergency plans, including for medical evacuations, and have certified athletic trainers on staff, he said.

In Jordan McNair’s case, a review found that about one hour elapsed between his initial heatstroke symptoms and when trainers called 911. The university agreed to pay a $3.5 million settlement to the family earlier this year.

“During interscholastic football games, such as this one, City Schools arranges for a medic to be on the scene,” city school officials said in a statement. “Additionally, all coaches are trained in student care and injury prevention. The medic ensures that the district Athletic Department receives information regarding any injury that requires medical attention.”

Players at Dunbar, Mervo’s opponent the day of Gorham’s injury, also have been grappling with his death, said coach Lawrence Smith.

“You just try to wrap your mind around it and do what you have to do for these kids,” Smith said. ”And it’s just not them. It’s us as a coaching staff. And I think this is going to affect the entire district as a whole, all the way up to our CEO. This is a tragic incident and this is going to affect everyone.”

Mervo is still deciding what to do about its scheduled Thursday afternoon game against City College, Nixon said. School officials have scheduled a candlelight vigil for Gorham for 7 p.m. Thursday at Mervo, he said.

“As far as the game, we’re still up in the air,” Nixon said. “A lot of players want to play. They want to honor him. I told them we’re not going to play unless we had a hundred percent” consensus.

So far in 2021, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has tracked 14 deaths related to football — 12 high school players and two college players. Three of the deaths were due to traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers there still are investigating the causes of the other deaths, but they are likely due to heatstroke or sudden cardiac arrest, said Randi DeLong, a spokeswoman for the center, in an email.

Each incident shakes the community, leaving behind dozens of grieving family members, coaches, teammates and friends. A 1978 Sun article told the story of John Manns, a 16-year-old Mervo player who died after a neck injury on the field. A representative from the Maryland Scholastic Association said at the time that his was the first youth football death in the state.

Decades later, the Mervo community is grieving a player in much the same way.

“It hit home today, going into the locker room and seeing his locker and seeing his jersey,” Nixon said. “It’s tough.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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