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‘I Was Meant to Be There’

In 2007, Vu Dang crossed paths with Scott Eveland in a North County hospital room.

The circumstances that brought them together are the heartbreaking things of on-screen melodrama. It would read like an overwrought script – if a trail of court documents and depositions didn’t support their stories.

Fifteen years apart, both were 17-year-old football players when a traumatic brain injury changed everything.

In each case, according to their lawyers and family, football coaches ignored warning signs they were already injured and insisted they play. Their injuries were then exacerbated, and each narrowly survived after doctors removed pieces of their skulls and tended to their bleeding brains.

There’s one major difference: Dang recovered. Eveland did not.

Today, Dang owns a yoga studio with his wife in Escondido. Eveland, whose family later settled a lawsuit with the school district for $4.4 million, depends on caregivers to eat, bathe and communicate. His injury nearly took it all and left his family with a living ghost.

Considering the ranks of high school athletes playing football on any given Friday, injuries this serious relatively rare. But they’re not unheard of. This past autumn, at least three high school football players [1] died – all reported to be the result of catastrophic brain injuries.

In the wake of the injuries, responses from teams and school districts follow a familiar pattern: They were unforeseeable, freak accidents. But that argument rings hollow if the athlete had a pre-existing head injury [2] and death could have been avoided had he gotten proper care.

Cases stack up [3], but somehow remain fragmented and isolated. Except sometimes, the stories intersect.

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When Dang heard about what happened to Eveland, he thought the injuries sounded a lot like the ones he’d suffered 15 years earlier.

In 1992, Dang’s coach at Escondido High played him in a game against San Marcos High despite the fact he’d gotten a concussion a week earlier. Returning a punt, Dang was hit by a wall of San Marcos defenders. Teammates later told him his eyes rolled back in his head, he lost consciousness and stopped breathing.

San Marcos’ athletic trainer later said [4], “We lost Vu Dang twice on the field and once more in the ambulance. We performed CPR on the field and again in the ambulance. He was gone, and we were able to bring him back.”

Over the years Dang slowly recovered and built a life for himself [5].

Doctors told him he’d suffered “second-impact syndrome” a second, catastrophic concussion that occurs before symptoms from the first have subsided. Had he received proper medical care after his first concussion, the catastrophic injury may never have happened.

Similarly, Eveland’s family said his football coaches at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos had also missed a chance to keep Eveland safe.

In a lawsuit the family filed against San Marcos Unified School District, their lawyers argued coaches acted negligently and compounded Eveland’s injuries while he was playing for Mission Hills in fall 2007.

The testimony of Breanna Bingen, a former student and assistant athletic trainer for Eveland’s team, was damning for San Marcos.

Bingen said Eveland had been experiencing headaches the week leading up to his devastating injury, and that she was in the room when Eveland visited the team’s head athletic trainer twice that week.

According to Bingen, the trainer told Eveland to lie down and rest, but never assessed him for a head injury or told him to see a doctor. On game day, Bingen said, Eveland again approached the trainer and said that his headache was killing him, and that he couldn’t play because he couldn’t see the football well enough.

When the concerns were relayed to the team’s head coach, Chris Hauser, he shrugged them off, Bingen said. She said she overheard Hauser tell the trainer “that Scotty was his fucking football player, and that if he wanted to put Scotty in the game, he was going to damn well put him in the game.”

The trainer testified that was all a lie. Eveland had never complained to him about headaches, he said. Other witnesses who backed up Bingen’s story were lying, too, the trainer said. Hauser, the coach, also denied [6] knowing about the headaches.

Regardless, Eveland did play in the football game. In the second quarter, Eveland jogged off the field and fell to his knees. He put his head on the ground for a moment, then collapsed completely.

Eveland was taken to the hospital where doctors performed emergency surgery.  He then fell into a coma, which is how Dang found him when he came to his hospital bed.

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Dang remembers the anxiety he felt on the way to the hospital to meet Eveland. What would he say? He didn’t know. But he knew the value of being surrounded by a circle of friends and family.

Dang had also been comatose, but he’d never seen it from the outside. “It was really difficult to see him in that physical state,” Dang told me. “To see his head shaved, and to see the indentation where they’d removed a piece of his skull.”

The room was quiet when Dang walked through the door. Eveland’s mom was there, and other family members floated past. On the table were flowers and get well cards and gift-store trinkets. But for Dang, underneath the support ran an overwhelming sense of sorrow and mourning.

Then Dang saw Eveland’s mom. “His mother recognized me and started to tear up. She gave me a hug. When that happened, I started to loosen up. It seemed to me that I was meant to be there and that I was extending prayers for him,” Dang said.

It was still early, before Eveland regained consciousness. Before the family knew how devastating his injuries would be. Before the family would rehash for lawyers, in excruciating detail, the circumstances leading up to the injury. Before the days Eveland spent learning to communicate through a keyboard. It was before all that.

At that moment, Eveland’s family was still hopeful he would regain full use of his body, Dang recalled. And Dang was living proof everything could turn out just fine.

Eveland’s mom might not have known what waited for them, but Dang had an idea.

“The most difficult part was knowing the journey he’d have to take once he regained consciousness,” Dang said. “He was going to be a different person. You’re a different person after a brain injury. It took me so long to accept that.”

But Dang couldn’t explain to Eveland or his mom any of that. They would have to discover it on their own. So he says he took the boy’s hand and held it. He just wanted Eveland to know he was there with him.