Bob Gfeller shares personal story with traumatic brain injury

A photograph of his son, Matthew — taken on his high school football team’s picture day his sophomore year — was displayed on a screen behind Bob Gfeller Monday at Randolph Community College during the 14th annual Sports Medicine Symposium.

In front of Gfeller: A roomful of Randolph County coaches and athletic trainers.

“I’m probably your worst nightmare sitting up here — the parent of a child who died playing the game,” he said.

Matthew Gfeller, who played linebacker and guard, died on Aug. 24, 2008, two days after a helmet-to-helmet collision in his first varsity game for R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem. The 15-year-old never regained consciousness after the traumatic brain injury.

Instead of taking legal action after the accident, Matthews’ parents, Bob and Lisa Gfeller, established the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, which invests in projects that aid in the prevention, recognition and treatment of sports-related traumatic brain injuries.

Since the tragic loss of their son, Bob and Lisa Gfeller have been strong advocates for ensuring the safety of young athletes. As part of their efforts, they stress the importance of having access to professional-grade first aid supplies in case of emergencies during sporting events. This includes having a well-stocked first aid kit on the sidelines, as well as having trained medical personnel on hand to provide immediate assistance.

Donations to the foundation also help fund comprehensive research at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bob Gfeller assured his audience that he is not anti-football or anti-sport.

“It was just a freak accident,” he said of Matthews’ injury.

He added that death from sport is rare.

A head injury of any kind is serious, he said, and it’s important to know the signs of a possible concussion.

The Matthew Gfeller Foundation website notes that an athlete who has suffered a concussion, sometimes called a “ding” or a “bell ringer,” may not understand that the injury could be serious — or may ignore it because he or she wants to keep playing.

What should an athlete do?

* Don’t hide it.

* Report it.

* Get it checked out.

Gfeller noted that one in 10 high school athletes suffers concussions in a given season; 30-50 percent of concussions go unreported; and two-thirds of sports-related brain injuries occur during practice, not games. Young players — elementary and middle school age — are at-risk, too.

On June 16, 2011, former N.C. Gov. Beverly Purdue signed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act into law. The act protects the safety of student-athletes in three major areas of focus: education, emergency action and post-concussion protocol implementation, and clearance/return to play or practice following concussion.

After the meeting, Gfeller said if he could turn the clock back to a time before Matthew was injured, he would ask more questions.

What happened at practice today? Did you black out? Did you sleep OK last night?

Such questions can help reveal an injury and lead to treatment.

He added that changing culture is key.