Coach at Center of Notorious ’90s Concussion Case Oversees Concussion Safety for SD Schools
February 10, 2015
As Escondido High’s football coach, Bruce Ward played an already injured athlete who suffered a second, catastrophic injury. Now, he oversees San Diego Unified’s sports safety protocols, including those for concussions.
On Oct. 2, 1992, Escondido High was desperate for a win.
In three games the team hadn’t notched a victory. And in the week leading up to the game against San Marcos High, a group of players, frustrated with coaches, walked away from the team.
Vu Dang, then a 17-year-old, 160-pound Escondido senior, stepped up to fill the gaps. In addition to starting at wide receiver, his coach, Bruce Ward, made the decision to put him back to return punts and kickoffs. He wasn’t big or blazingly fast, but had a quick first-step.
Now 40, Dang remembers catching a punt and heading up field – and then, the impact. He was hit by a wall of defenders. That’s when the lights went out.
The rest he’s pieced together from what teammates later told him: He immediately tore off his helmet, his eyes rolled back in his head, he lost consciousness and stopped breathing. His mother rushed onto the field and collapsed when she saw her son.
“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,” San Marcos’ athletic trainer later said.
Dang was taken by ambulance to Palomar Medical Center. There, doctors found bleeding on the right side of his brain. While treating Dang’s immediate trauma, they also discovered an older, subdural hematoma – a blood clot between the brain and skull – which they said could have been about a week old.
In fact, Dang had gotten a concussion in a game the week before.
In that game against Temecula Valley, he caught a quick pass and a defender hit Dang underneath his facemask. The impact was so hard he was lifted off his feet.
“I knew I was rocked. When I got up off the ground my body was tingling,” Dang said about the first concussion.
Escondido’s athletic trainer knew about his first concussion. So did Ward, the team’s head coach. But his parents didn’t because nobody ever told them, legal documents allege.
Doctors called it a “second-impact syndrome” a second, catastrophic concussion that occurs before symptoms from the first have subsided.
Put simply, Dang should have never played against San Marcos. Why he did was set to be hashed out by legal teams, and is documented by court records. But before the case went to trial, the parties settled out of court.
Dang eventually recovered. He suffered long-term brain damage and struggled with memory loss after the injury. He struggled in areas where he’d once excelled, like high-level math. He left college after his grades fell too low to maintain an academic scholarship, and he drifted between low-paying jobs for several years. He now owns a yoga studio with his wife in Escondido.
As for the coach, Ward left Escondido and in 2000 was hired by San Diego Unified. Today, Ward is the district’s director of physical education, health and interscholastic athletics.
Ward is paid just under $128,000 a year to oversee the daily operations of the district’s athletic programs. He’s the point person for making sure all coaches in the district are properly trained and following safety protocols – including those for concussions.
The District’s Man on Concussions
Despite the increased awareness, many California school districts, including San Diego Unified, can’t say how many football-related concussions they’ve seen in recent years. District spokesperson Ursula Kroemer said the district has a system that allows its nursing team to record injuries, but that it doesn’t have a means to document the circumstances around an injury.
But Kroemer couldn’t even say how widely that system was used, or whether schools are required to report injuries through it. So while there have been 135 concussions since September 2013, the district can’t say how many of those were related to athletics.
Ward is the “overall-point person” for making sure coaches are certified and teams are following safety protocols, according to the district. Yet, 20 years ago, a lawsuit blamed his leadership for traumatic brain injuries suffered by one of his players...
But in 2007, he spoke to the Union-Tribune about Dang’s injury. In that story, Ward acknowledged that he had concerns about Dang’s first concussion when he decided to play him in the second game against San Marcos.
“We were playing San Marcos in a game we felt was going to be a battle of field position. Vu was a good receiver with good hands. But we took him off the offense and put him on the field to return punts. He was instructed to catch the ball. Fair catch everything to save the offense some yards. We didn’t want him to run. But he was young, caught the ball, decided to run, and he was injured,” he told the paper.
But Dang said that wasn’t true. In fact, because the team was unexpectedly short-handed, Ward had actually increased his workload for the San Marcos game.
Ward shifted blame onto Dang, saying he had ignored coaches’ instructions. The decision to play him, however, was a serious risk no matter what instructions Dang received.
The Trial That Never Happened
The Union Tribune reported that Dang had seen a doctor before the San Marcos game and had been cleared to play. But court records obtained by VOSD put that claim in serious dispute.
In fact, it was the basis of the lawsuit Dang’s family eventually filed against three defendants: Bruce Ward and the Escondido Union High School District, Riddell, a helmet manufacturer, and North County & Escondido Physical Therapy, Inc., the company contracted by the school to provide athletic trainer services.
The trial was sure to be an ugly, finger-pointing circle. The attorneys representing North County & Escondido Physical Therapy said the athletic trainer warned Ward that Dang was injured and recommended he not play. The school denied that conversation ever took place.
Court records show the arguments each side was prepared to make.
The athletic trainer blamed Ward for creating a “Texas football,” “win-at-all costs” culture. Journal entries the trainer’s attorneys submitted as evidence include descriptions of Ward calling kids “lazy” and yelling at them not to visit the athletic trainer if they wanted to make the team...