The first thing Steve Hamm did after getting down to the sideline was check the player's eyes. Dilated.
"You're done," he said. "Ben, do you know who I am?"
"Yeah, Dad, I know who you are," Ben replied. "I know who you are."
It was the fourth quarter on a Friday night in mid-September. Decked out in their purple tops and charcoal-gray bottoms, Wesleyan Christian School was hosting Woodland High in an eight-man high school football game in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Moments before, Ben was on kick coverage for Wesleyan Christian after running in a short-yardage touchdown on offense. Everything seemed normal during the kickoff, but then Ben crumpled to the turf around midfield. As he wobbled toward his team's bench, Steve, who had been in the stands, rushed to meet him.
"Alright, well, stay with me," Steve told his son. Pausing for just a few seconds, he then asked again.
"Ben, do you know who I am?"
Ben moved his lips, trying to get the words out, but this time the only sound he made was what Steve calls a "God-awful groan." Someone nearby said Ben was having a seizure. Before the ambulance arrived, Ben was laid down next to the bench and started throwing up.
Steve was praying nonstop. Emergency responders attempted to work a tube down Ben's throat so he could keep breathing, but they couldn't get it down. After about 45 minutes of trying, they took Ben to the local hospital.
Ben Hamm was born in December 1998 and spent most of his childhood in Lamont, Oklahoma, a rural oil town of well under 500 people that sits alongside Oklahoma State Highway 74 about 100 miles north of Oklahoma City.
Making friends came naturally for the little boy with fiery red hair, freckles and a smile that matched his cheerful attitude. The youngest of three siblings, Ben loved Star Wars, John Wayne movies and ranch dressing.
"Ranch dressing on everything," Steve says—not even spaghetti was safe.
Religion was big with the Hamms. Steve, a third-generation member of the Church of Christ, is a minister, and Ben's extended family includes many preachers and church elders. Ben went on his first mission trip when he was just four years old.
Then there was football. Ben started playing in second grade when he joined a team for third and fourth graders. In 2013, the Hamms moved the 90-some miles from Lamont to Bartlesville because of Steve's job at Phillips 66. That year, Ben entered his freshman year of high school at Wesleyan Christian, a small private school offering pre-kindergarten through 12th grade; his mom, Misti, now teaches third grade there. Despite being in a new town and on a new team, Ben quickly became one of Wesleyan Christian's top players on both sides of the ball. This year, Ben was named co-captain.
On defense, the 5-foot-8, 205-pounder was the team's best tackling linebacker. Playing the strong side in the Mustangs' two-linebacker formation, Ben leveraged his size to deliver punishing hits–and didn't shy from slamming into opponents much bigger than he was.
Offensively, Ben was a powerful running back. He wasn't a speedster coming out of the backfield, but his two gears regularly gashed opposing defenses 10 and 15 yards at a time.
"He had big ol' thighs and a big butt, and he could squat over 400 pounds," says Kevin Dennis, an offensive line coach in his eighth season at Wesleyan Christian who also helped with the team's running backs this year. "He had one of those bowling-ball bodies. He would just come at ya, and there was nothing to tackle."
A running joke in Bartlesville was that if Ben were three inches taller, maybe he'd have a shot at playing Division I college football—who knows, maybe even for his beloved Oklahoma Sooners. Yet as good as his high school career was, it was also pocked with serious injuries.
During the second padded practice of his freshman year, Ben suffered a concussion. His brain bled, and he was forced to sit out the entire season. Steve and Misti were a little hesitant about Ben playing again; however, a neurosurgeon cleared him to return for his sophomore season last year. Ben then sat out a significant amount of time due to torn muscle fibers in his neck, but heading into this year's game against Woodland High, on September 11, he was healthy.
Prior to the start of this season, the Wesleyan Christian coaches decided to change things up for the whole team. Out went traditional football tackling and in came a new rugby-style technique, in which a player comes in at an angle and twists or rolls his opponent to the turf rather than plowing straight through him. This wrap tackle was made famous by the Seattle Seahawks and coach Pete Carroll, who consulted with former rugby players to develop the method for American football. Since the tackling method originates in a sport where players don't wear helmets, proponents believe that it is also safer, particularly when it comes to head injuries.
Football-related head injuries loom large in the national consciousness: the links between the sport's repeated blows and lasting brain damage have been well documented at the professional level for some time now—indeed, it's even the subject of a Hollywood movie. Now that scientists have started to find the same kind of damage in amateur players, some in the science and medical communities are calling for football to be taken out of schools.
While the long-term effects of playing football have been the subject of most of this debate, the sport can have more immediate, if much more rarely realized, risks. Every year, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research records football-related deaths in the U.S. According to the NCCSIR, the number of direct fatalities—defined as those "which resulted directly from participation in the fundamental skills of football"— has fallen, on average, to its lowest level since the survey began in 1931. (Causes of death like heat stroke and cardiac arrest count as "indirect.") Some link this decrease to new safety rules and better awareness of football's dangers; others, like Missouri-based football historian Matt Chaney, believe 1970s improvements in emergency medicine—widespread establishment of EMTs, modular ambulances, life flights, emergency rooms and trauma surgery—deserve the credit. Last year, five high school players died directly from football, according to the NCCSIR, out of about 1,100,100 total participants. The vast majority of direct fatalities are brain injuries.
Watching tape of the Woodland High game later on, Dennis and the rest of the Wesleyan Christian coaching staff would find that Ben got hurt earlier in the game, not on that fourth-quarter kickoff. He had fallen over another player after getting pushed over a pile. During the fall, Ben's head whiplashed back and hit the turf. Right after, Ben hopped up and came to the sideline.
"I never saw any indication that there was a prior injury or that there was something going on," Dennis says. "There was no indication as far as his personality or the way he looked or acted to indicate he'd been injured."
The respirator finally was inserted at Jane Phillips Medical Center in Bartlesville. Ben was taken by ambulance to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, 50 miles downstate, after it was determined a helicopter would take about the same amount of time, if not longer.
Ben arrived at Saint Francis at around 11:30 PM. The neurosurgeon there was straight-to-the-point with Steve and Misti. Their son's brain was bleeding. Surgery was necessary to remove the pooling blood, but his survival wasn't guaranteed.
At around four in the morning, after about two hours of surgery, Ben was taken to a room in the intensive care unit. He'd spend the next seven days there in a medically-induced coma. The room also doubled as a makeshift home for his parents. Misti intermittently slept under the room's window on a pullout bed that doubled as a couch during the day. Steve used a reclining chair.
Throughout the week, doctors told the Hamms there wasn't any hope. Ben wasn't going to survive. But Steve wasn't ready to give up. Be it medically or through prayer, Steve wasn't going to leave any stone unturned.
"What kind of father would I be if I didn't try to the very end–possibly end of everything?" Steve remembers telling doctors, his voice shaking as he recounted the conversation. "I couldn't live with myself–I just couldn't–if I didn't try every available option."
Ben's head was elevated and his body was covered in a cooling blanket. Pillows lined the side of his hospital bed to ensure his head and spine remained perfectly straight. A fan aimed at him sent as much cold air as it could to help combat a fever.
IVs never stopped pumping. Nurses monitored him throughout the first night as alarms sounded. Among the many machines he was hooked up to was an indicator reporting that the pressure in Ben's skull was high and, at times, climbing. As the week progressed, and after another surgery to remove a piece of his skull, Ben remained in a coma. By the end of the week, his body had swelled up from medication.
"I have to know if this is the same injury," Misti told the nurses at one point.
She was feeling guilty knowing her son returned to football following the concussion and brain bleed he suffered in 2013. That first injury was to Ben's left side of the brain. The nurse later told Misti that this September's injury was to the right side. They were completely different.
Misti and Steve kept a steady vigil at Saint Francis. They were joined by their two other children—Morgan Muegge, 23, and Jacob, 20—as well as the nursing staff, members of their church, parents at Wesleyan Christian, coworkers of Steve's and former students of Misti's. Even people the Hamms didn't know showed up. The group was fueled by their desperate hope, faith and prayers as well as a steady stream of meals brought by visitors. Cards and letters kept flying into the hospital, too, in addition to messages over social media. The mother of one of Ben's friends, who also took photographs for the football team, posted updates to the Wesleyan Christian community on Facebook.
By Friday night, the oxygen level in Ben's blood was dwindling, and his blood pressure medicine had fleeting results. Late in the evening, a nurse told his family that it wasn't a matter of days that Ben had left to live–it was hours. At around 1 AM on Saturday, the nurse reappeared: maybe it was time to say goodbye. The Hamms called family staying nearby, telling them to come back to the hospital.
"He just looked like he was asleep [all week]," Morgan says, but when she got to the hospital in the middle of the night she could tell that her brother's health was fading just from his appearance. "It had just changed so dramatically so quickly."
Jacob was in an all-out sprint down the hall to get to Ben's room. Overwhelmed, he told his little brother all the reasons why he couldn't die, but Ben's condition continued to deteriorate through the night and the next morning. As the hospital's 7 AM shift signed on, his family decided it was time to take him off his medicine and see what would happen. As long as Ben's heart would keep beating, he still had a chance.
"We sang," Steve says, pausing briefly. His voice starts to shake and tears fall. "We sang his favorite song to him. And we all told him goodbye and we loved him and that we would see him again."
His favorite song, "Jesus, You're My Firm Foundation," was sung, and a prayer was said. At around 7:30 AM, Ben's heart stopped. He was 16 years old.
Ben was the second high school football player in the country to die that month, according to media reports. At least six others would later pass away before their teams' respective seasons would end. Out of those eight deaths, four were caused by a head injury.
The funeral was held at Wesleyan Christian at the end of September. Ben's high school football teammates and players from nearby Bartlesville High served as pallbearers. Dressed in their football uniforms, the rest of Wesleyan Christian's team sat toward the front of the auditorium with their coaches and the coaches' wives.
The open casket lay up front before the raised stage. "The Lord is my shepherd" was engraved in its oak. A flower arrangement, Ben's football helmet and a football signed by his teammates rested on top. Inside, Ben wore his purple football jersey and charcoal-gray pants. Ben's head, still swollen, was covered by a Wesleyan Christian baseball hat.
"He looked really good," Steve says.
The funeral started around 10 AM, and by 9:30, there wasn't an empty seat to be found. More than 1200 people packed the auditorium, both the ground floor and the second-story jogging track, and spilled into overflow seating in the school's cafeteria to pay their respects. Hardly anybody left afterward. For two hours, a single-file line took turns offering Misti and Steve hugs and condolences.
"It was incredible, the amount of love that we received from so many people," Steve says. "That just humbled us."
After the funeral wrapped up in Bartlesville, Ben returned to Lamont that afternoon one last time.
"Well, I already know where I want to be buried," Ben said from the backseat of the family's dark-gray Honda Odyssey. "I want to be buried in Lamont. Because I'm going to move back to Lamont and I'm going to coach at Lamont."
The Hamms had been on their way back home from an extended family member's funeral in Kansas that spring when Ben unexpectedly turned the conversation toward himself, and where he'd be buried. It was a topic they didn't have to worry about for quite some time, Misti and Steve told him. But, they added, when it came time, Ben would probably be buried wherever he made a family and a home.
"We didn't know it at the time, but we would be having to make that decision sooner than we thought," Misti says. In September, Misti and Steve remembered that conversation with their son, and chose to bury him in Lamont.
More than 200 hundred people showed up at the cemetery to say goodbye; some were from the town, others had driven the 90 minutes from the funeral in Bartlesville.
"They loved him coming back home," Steve says.
With their son buried, Misti and Steve wanted to run away. From hordes of well-wishers. From media publicity. From a life without their youngest son. So, three days later, they packed up their van and started driving.
They ate up highway for 10 days in between stops in Branson, Missouri; Ashville, North Carolina, to see the Blue Ridge Parkway up in the Appalachian Highlands; Niagara Falls and Maine. Really, though, the trip was a time to read the bible, reflect and cry.
Misti didn't want to come home, and the closer she got, the worse she felt. Being back in Bartlesville would mean she'd have to face everything. She wasn't ready for that. By the time she and Steve rolled into their driveway, Misti didn't want to get out of the car. But then she saw the flowerbed in her front yard. It had come to life with purple-and-gold flowers – Wesleyan Christian's school colors – while she and Steve were gone. The front porch was decorated, too, with pumpkins and new pillows on the benches.
Inside, the dining room was done up and flowers had been tastefully put here and there. Out back, there was a new fountain with a trickling waterfall. Mums now called the formerly barren flowerbeds home. A hammock big enough for two people hung under the big tree.
The message from the community was clear. The Hamms still weren't alone as they began to try and pick up the pieces and start to heal.
On a Monday night a month after Ben's burial, Misti and Steve sat on the loveseat in their living room. Morgan was parked on a nearby couch that her littlest brother loved to sprawl out on and crash while watching football.
Misti's gaze drifted across the room as she looked at the photos sitting on the fireplace mantle. Among the senior portraits of Morgan and Jacob was Ben's ninth-grade picture. Another one had Ben with a group of friends from football. Their arms were draped around each other and "Band of Brothers" was written above them.
"I want to remember every single thing," Misti explained, pausing. "And they help me remember."
The Hamms were trying to cope, but their pain was still so fresh and so raw. They didn't blame anything for the accident that caused Ben's death. Not football, not the coaches, not any of the players. How long would it take to heal? Neither parent knew.
Steve likes to keep busy. On October 12, he returned to work at Phillips 66. Some mornings have been harder than others. He's been to two Wesleyan Christian football games since his son's death. Standing on the team's sideline both times, he encouraged the Mustangs to play without fear. They'd go on to finish the season, losing to the eventual Oklahoma Christian School Athletic Association champion, Destiny Christian School, in the playoffs.
Misti hasn't been to a single game, and even being out in public has been a struggle. Just before Halloween was the first time she stepped foot on Wesleyan Christian campus since the funeral: she got out of Steve's truck and walked to the building's front door before turning back. That was all Misti could take.
"We miss him," Misti said from the loveseat, fighting tears. "I just thank all of my new friends and all of my old friends and every single person who is trying to help me with this transition because it's harder for me, I'm sure, than it is for Ben."