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Fighting for Their Lives

The Taylor Haugen Foundation Marks Ten Years of Protecting Young Athletes

By Tori Phelps

If you can’t readily name the worst day of your life, consider yourself lucky. For Brian and Kathy Haugen, it’s all too easy: August 30, 2008. That’s the day their fifteen-year-old son, Taylor, sustained a fatal abdominal injury while playing high school football. In the decade since, the Haugens have survived that unimaginable loss in the only way they can: by throwing themselves into the fight to protect other children—and parents—from a similar fate.

Soon after Taylor’s death, which shook the entire community of Niceville, Florida, the Taylor Haugen Foundation was launched to bring awareness to abdominal injuries and provide protective gear to young athletes who play contact sports. As it turns out, an item costing less than eighty dollars would likely have saved Taylor’s life. “If we had known this equipment had existed, it would have been on our son,” says Brian.

That equipment, a rib protection shirt whose panels mold and then harden to its wearer’s torso, is now part of their everyday vocabulary. Through the foundation’s Youth Equipment for Sports Safety (YESS) program, over 4,500 athletes in seventy-five schools across the country have been outfitted with those shirts.

The Haugens’ donations and awareness campaigns are specifically directed at young athletes, their coaches, and governing bodies because collegiate and professional athletes regularly use rib protectors to prevent abdominal injuries. (Although Kathy points out that at least three NFL players were out due to such injuries at the time of this interview. “It’s something I keep track of,” she says.) The danger is present from the first tackle, they say, and rib protector shirts should be, too.

“If we had known this equipment had existed, it would have been on our son,” says Brian.

The Foundation, which also awards an annual trophy and six scholarships to local students who embody Taylor’s combination of Christian faith, leadership, academics, community service, and athletics, is making inroads—but not quickly enough to stem a rising tide of abdominal injuries. With high school football’s new helmet-to-helmet contact and chop block rules—both designed to prevent other kinds of injuries—the torso is becoming more of a primary target, Brian explains. They know this because Kathy and Brian are often the first points of contact for parents whose children have sustained abdominal injuries. “Every year, we hear about more and more of them,” Kathy says.

The Haugens pass this information along to agencies like the National Center for Catastrophic Injuries in North Carolina, but it’s an uphill battle because abdominal injuries aren’t considered as dangerous as concussions, for example. The two have a lot in common, though. Brian compares the lack of understanding about abdominal injuries to a time when people didn’t consider concussions to be a big deal. We know now, of course, that they are. The Haugens are desperately trying to ring the bell about abdominal injuries to prevent a similar legacy of athletes who are facing lifelong, catastrophic consequences.

Part of that bell ringing, they hope, includes partnering with NFL players to give their message a wider audience. They need those big guns because time is ticking. Again mirroring concussion findings, the medical community has discovered that repeated blows to the abdomen can result in damage to or loss of the kidneys, gallbladder, liver, spleen, pancreas, and small intestines—all cases the Haugens have learned about from former football players. But because not all contact-sport abdominal injuries seem to require immediate medical attention, they don’t necessarily get classified as such when patients eventually see a doctor. Hence, the perception that the problem is neither widespread nor serious.

The Haugens and other parents of injured or deceased children beg to differ.

To help encourage real change, the Foundation is adding a #PledgetoProtect campaign, which is aimed at everyone involved in youth athletics, from players to referees to booster club members. The six-point pledge includes a resolution to wear—or ensure the availability of—proper protective gear, as well as to openly communicate about abdominal injuries. It also incorporates aspects like teaching youth football players the most advanced tackling and blocking techniques. In meeting with NFL players, the Haugens hear over and over that a lack of technique in secondary schools increases the risk of injury. Programs that teach proper tackling are easily accessible, Kathy says, adding that the Seattle Seahawks have even posted educational YouTube videos of the tackle training their team receives.

The six-point pledge includes a resolution to wear—or ensure the availability of—proper protective gear, as well as to openly communicate about abdominal injuries. It also incorporates aspects like teaching youth football players the most advanced tackling and blocking techniques.

The pledge also prescribes emergency medical personnel on the sidelines at every game and at every practice, where 60 percent of abdominal injuries occur. The Haugens understand that many districts can’t fund an athletic trainer at all, much less a trainer for every game and practice, but they contend that there are ways to implement community resources to achieve that goal.

Lastly, the pledge encourages those who regulate or supervise youth football to make abdominal protection equipment standard throughout the United States by 2028.

Several pieces of the pledge require substantial amounts of money. Direct donations help support the foundation, but its most significant source of income is the annual Savor the Season event. The upscale food-and-wine extravaganza takes place this year on October 25 at the Emerald Grande in Destin, Florida, which offers the stunning Destin Harbor as a backdrop. Expected to attract approximately eight hundred revelers, Savor the Season highlights cuisine from nearly a dozen of the area’s most talented chefs, along with individual wine pairings. The Haugens admit they are “wine people,” so the event has developed a reputation for quality offerings and fun vino-related events. The evening also includes live and silent auctions studded with extravagant trips, sports excursions, shopping packages, and much more.

Savor the Season is about having a great time while raising much-needed funds, but the Haugens are hopeful that it also prompts attendees to learn more about protecting the young athletes in their lives from abdominal injuries. Regrettably, parents can’t count on coaches to know about or enforce safety protocols, so they have to be their child’s advocates. Ask questions about whether there’s medical help on the sidelines and what protocols are in place for various injuries, they advise, and never feel bad about insisting that your child wear proper protective gear.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Haugens don’t think football should be restricted or banned. Kathy admits, “A lot of people think that’s crazy coming from a mother who lost her only child to the game. But a lot of good things come out of sports. If we just play smarter, we’ll have a lot fewer injuries.”

Reflecting on the foundation’s accomplishments over the last ten years is bittersweet for the Haugens. There’s immense joy in knowing that they’ve helped protect thousands of young athletes. But it’s impossible to forget for even a minute why it has become their mission or that they still have mountains to move. They draw strength from Taylor’s personal motto—“Never Quit and Never Give Up”—when it comes to sharing truths that could have saved their son. “If all I can do now is get this information out to people, I’ll do it,” Kathy says. “I think Taylor would be quite proud of his parents.”

— V —

Visit TaylorHaugen.org to learn more, buy Savor the Season tickets, and see how you can get involved.

Tori Phelps has been a writer and editor for nearly twenty years. A publishing industry veteran and longtime VIE collaborator, Phelps lives with three kids, two cats, and one husband in Charleston, South Carolina.

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