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.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

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

From the NFL to youth leagues, football is facing an existential crisis. For school districts, it’s becoming harder to reconcile the safety of its students with the growing body of evidence that shows the havoc football can wreak on their brains.

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.

North County & Escondido Physical Therapy Inc. – co-defendants in the lawsuit Dang filed – blamed Ward’s leadership for Dang’s injuries.

“The head coach and athletic director, Bruce Ward had a duty to implement a system to ensure that the physical wellbeing of all the players is given top priority,” attorneys wrote. “No such system was in place at Escondido High School.”

Kroemer didn’t respond when asked whether the district was aware of the Escondido case when it hired Ward, or whether it had investigated the incident. She also said she could not provide his resume because the human resources department doesn’t have one on file.

Ward declined multiple requests to be interviewed by VOSD.

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.

North County & Escondido Physical Therapy also blamed Dang for not taking advantage of a Saturday clinic that offered athletic training services to players.

Dang was suing, in part, for the future earnings he’d lose as a result of his long-term brain damage. But records show that North County & Escondido Physical planned to question Dang’s capacity even before the injury:

“Vu Dang has been portrayed as an exceptional individual pre-accident with limitless future potential. Plaintiffs have insisted that pre-accident Vu had an IQ in excess of 130. They base this conclusion on the fact that Vu participated in the GATE program while in elementary and junior high school. However, there is no objective evidence to support this position. In fact, GATE program participation did not mandate a 130 IQ.”

In the end, the case was settled out of court. Dang said the settlement came to just over $1 million, before attorney fees.

As part of the settlement, Dang said he had to sign a no-fault agreement that said he doesn’t hold anyone responsible. At that point, Dang was tired. He knew the court case would be nasty and he didn’t want his family to suffer.

“I just thought, whatever. I’ll fucking sign it. I don’t want to be stuck in this world anymore,” Dang said.

Verifying the sum of the settlement is difficult. Even court records are incomplete. A notice on the case jacket at North County Superior Court says the file lacks documents that clerks couldn’t locate after an exhaustive search. Paperwork indicates a settlement was reached, but doesn’t include the amount.

Escondido Union High School District said it has no record of the incident or the settlement. Neither the district spokesperson nor its superintendent could offer clarity on how the district responded to the injury.

It’s as if the case has been erased from the district’s collective memory.

Life After Football

Following his injury, Dang went into a coma. When he woke up, the attention his case had attracted was overwhelming.

Bobby Ross, former coach for the Chargers, visited him at the hospital, he said. He got a signed banner from Marshall Faulk, then a San Diego State star, and the rest of that year’s Aztec football team. Strangers raised $25,000 to help pay for his medical bills.

At first, Dang had to relearn basic skills. “I felt like a 17-year-old baby,” he said.

When he got back to school, he was a hero. But even with all the attention, he felt isolated.

“I didn’t know what to feel. I lost my sense of who I was. I felt like a celebrity in some ways. But mostly, I felt alone,” he said. “I tried so hard to let everyone know I was the same person, but my family and friends could see that I wasn’t.”

The good will from the school started to end late in his senior year, when Dang’s family hired attorneys and began legal proceedings.

He’d tried to rehabilitate in time for baseball season – his first love. But around that time, Dang said, the baseball coach approached him and told him the school didn’t want him playing because they were afraid of liabilities. “I was crushed,” he said.

Over time, he adjusted. He came to terms with the fact that he couldn’t do the same things he once could, like high-level math. He tried college, but after struggling academically, decided it wasn’t for him.

He drifted for a number of years, trying different jobs, before eventually becoming a massage therapist.

By 2013, life was looking up. He’d gotten married. He and wife opened a yoga studio in Escondido. He started finding a rhythm.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

But that year, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It was lung cancer, but by the time doctors had found it, CT scans showed that it had spread into his bones. “In pictures, my cancer was glowing,” he said.

Doctors gave him two months to live. “But I didn’t prescribe to that thinking.”

He now gets weekly treatments and says his cancer is in remission. He says his friends call him “unkillable.” He does yoga and chooses food and nutritional supplements carefully. He recommends brown seaweed.

“Look, I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I got cancer, and accepted death, that I realized I really wanted to live. It wasn’t until then that I really started to heal from the brain injury.”

Even with the injuries, his feelings toward football are mixed.

“I don’t hate the game. I don’t have any resentment or ill feelings toward it. Because it’s a special game. We watch it on TV and we’re amazed at what these athletes can do,” he said.

But if he had a son, Dang said, he wouldn’t want him playing football.

“This is a very primitive game for young kids to be playing. They’re living in a highlight film. Every kid wants to go out and become a football star. And every kid think he’s invincible,” he said. “I don’t know what it should be, but something needs to happen. Something needs to change.”

Mario Koran reports on hospitals, nonprofits and educational institutions, digging into their impact on the greater San Diego community. He can be reached at mario.koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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