On the Sunday morning that followed the Sept. 13 football game in which Damon Janes was injured, one day before the Brocton junior would pass away due to the injury, Portville coach Gary Swetland called a team meeting at his school.
Swetland wanted his players to watch the film of the Panthers’ game with Westfield/Brocton, a video he had watched “a hundred times” over the previous 36 hours or so.
He wanted them to watch what he had, to see what he had seen – or hadn’t seen: No helmet-to-helmet hit, no obvious play that would lend one to think that a catastrophic injury was occurring or would occur. Nothing that had been done, nothing that they had done.
“I just felt that the contest was so typical, so typical of any high school game, and yet someone died,” Swetland said. “I didn’t want players thinking that I was involved in something that killed someone, or I did something wrong, or I’m responsible in some way. It simply isn’t the case. No high school player is responsible for what happened to Damon Janes.”
In talking with Coach Swetland about the game film, an inexplicably heartbreaking event remains very much that way. His memory from the sidelines is that he was coaching, as he has done many times in 27 years at Portville, a good, typical high school football game. He kept looking for answers in the repeated viewings of the video.
There are no obvious ones. There was, according to Swetland, and contrary to many reports about Janes’ injury, no helmet-to-helmet hit. There was no collision that stopped the game. No player was down on the field. There was no incident that sparked a collective gasp of concern from the bleachers.
“No one is guilty of a helmet-to-helmet hit,” he said. “No one is guilty of poor officiating. There were no violent head-to-head collisions, people colliding from opposite directions. As in any football game, there are incidental collisions. That’s why we have helmets. There is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. There isn’t anything you can identify from watching” the film.
“From a coaching standpoint, from a player’s standpoint ... from anybody’s perspective, there’s a real element of mystery to this. There’s a bewilderment, that anything that transpired in that football game that would result in the death of a football player.”
Janes’ official cause of death has not been released. Portville declined The News’ request to view the game film.
Section VI officials have said there is no review or investigation that they know of, and that any sort of review of any sort would start at the school level (it’s the same policy no matter what kind of injury or situation occurs). Portville superintendent Thomas Simon said his district has reviewed its procedures. Westfield superintendent David Davison said via email Wednesday that there are “no new developments at this time.” Westfield oversees the administering of the Westfield/Brocton football program, which combines both districts.
The initial reports about Janes’ injury cited law enforcement sources saying that a helmet-to-helmet collision led to the injury.
When Janes passed away, the statement released by the hospital on behalf of the family used the phrase “helmet to helmet.” When one does an Internet search of Janes’ passing, a “helmet-to-helmet” hit is almost always part of the story, whether the report is from Sports Illustrated, or Fox Sports, this newspaper, other local reports, or countless sites and blogs.
However, Swetland said he did not see a helmet-to-helmet collision that night, or upon review of the game film.
He first viewed the game film like he always does after home games: In the hours after the final whistle, from his office.
On Saturday morning, when he learned that Janes was in critical condition, he watched the film again. And again. And again.
“The first seven or eight times, you couldn’t tell anything out of the ordinary than typical high school football,” Swetland said. “After learning of Damon Janes’ increasingly critical condition, I was looking more closely and more closely and more closely, play-by-play. Eventually got to that point that we were looking for him on every play.
“The reality is, there is still nothing there that’s out of the typical. There was nothing on the film the 100th time” or on the first time, he said.
Swetland said that at one point in the third quarter, Janes was tackled on a running play and then walked to the sidelines. As the teams lined up for the next play, Westfield/Brocton coach Bob North approached the officials on the field. Swetland thought he was calling for a timeout.
“The referee told me that Westfield had an injured player and needed a medical professional,” Swetland said. “We sent our trainer over but there was no sense that anything really bad had happened.”
As the teams again lined up for a third-down play, the referee blew his whistle again. Again, Swetland thought a timeout was called.
“The ref came over and asked me to come out to midfield because the Westfield coaches wanted to talk to me. When I got to midfield, they told me that they had an injured player and that they had to end the game.
“I asked them if they needed anything. I offered our locker room, whatever they needed. They said that they had an injured player and they were going to the hospital with him.”
The game was called with Portville up, 32-6, at the time.
Football games occasionally have injuries that require an ambulance to take a player to receive medical attention.
“Obviously we were aware a young man had left the field in an ambulance, and you have concern about the health and welfare for anybody in that position,” Swetland said. “We did not anticipate a young man may die from injuries sustained in a football game.”
Janes benefit Sunday
A benefit to support the family of Damon Janes will be held Sunday in Westfield.
The benefit will run from 1 to 7 p.m. at the Westfield Moose Lodge, 19 Clinton St. Tickets, which include a chicken dinner, will be sold for $7 (adults) and $5 (children 7 and under). Live music, a 50/50 raffle and a ticket auction will be included.
Organizers are seeking autographed Bills and Sabres gear to auction. For more information, contact Janet Reid at 581-0123 or Janet.Reid@fredonia.edu.
Watch last night’s episode of PrepTalkTV, which featured an interview with Sweet Home football coach John Faller and junior co-captain Brandon Smiley, at BuffaloNews.com. Our guest co-host was Christian Central grad and University of Buffalo student Aaron Mansfield, who is the editor of UB’s The Spectrum.