Wildcats hold strong following 'traumatic' incident

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OAKMAN — The community of Oakman is continuing to cope after five of the high school's football players were injured Friday night.

"Initially, they were in shock," Oakman High School Principal Patrick Gann said of the student body. "They were really upset and worried. Some of them were even in tears that happened to their friends, and seeing them hauled off in an ambulance, on stretchers, was eerie."

Oakman football players traveled over three hours to Pike County High School Friday to face the Bulldogs in the first round of the Alabama High School Athletic Association's Class 3A playoffs. Shortly before the game, a concrete retaining wall in the visitor's locker room at Pike County High collapsed on five Oakman players.  

All five were transported to area hospitals, and three suffered back injuries. On Tuesday around midday, Oakman Head Football Coach Mark Hastings said one student remained in the hospital, while another was released Sunday in a back brace. Another student was visiting an orthopedic physician Tuesday for a professional opinion on back and shoulder injuries sustained.

He said two other players were released from the hospital Friday night after suffering head lacerations. Those two students are expected to have no lasting impacts from their injuries, but the healing process of the other three players remains uncertain.

During the whole ordeal, none of the students ever went unconscious.

Three of the injured players were starters, which Hastings said put the team at a disadvantage when they played Pike County in the rescheduled game Monday. The Wildcats were defeated 21-8, but Hastings commended the team for their valiant effort.

"They definitely hurt for their teammates. A lot of them are really close, so obviously that was tough on them," Hastings said. "They also knew they had 40 other teammates that needed them, and they needed to give it their best effort —  both mentally and physically — and that's what they did."

Oakman played on a heavily muddied field at Pike County High Monday, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees.

"It's probably the worst conditions that I've participated in, and, pretty much, the other coaches would tell you the same thing," Hastings said.

He said the conditions didn't stop the team from giving it their all.

"They came focused. They came ready to play. They gave it their best shot," he said. "I think they wanted to win the football game for their team, for their teammates that were hurt, and then for themselves, so they put everything they had into it. That's basically all you can ask out of anyone, especially after a situation like this."

Oakman Mayor Cory Franks said his nephew was one of the players injured Friday. His nephew has been released from Children's of Alabama and will be wearing a back brace for a while due to injured vertebrae in his back. He will not be able to play sports for the remainder of the school year and possibly next year, according to Franks.

He said his nephew was still trying to process what happened when he visited him at Children's Friday night.

"He was in shock. He couldn't walk, and he wasn't saying much. He was in a lot of pain," Franks said. "He was really just shaken up by the whole incident. ... It was a traumatic situation for the kids."

He added, "Being such a small town, anything that happens on that level affects everybody, and we're all concerned for the well-being of our children athletes. I know that the school is going to handle it and make sure they get the answers they need." 

Gann said the superintendent of Pike County Schools, along with the high school's principal, have remained supportive. He also spoke to the state fire marshal investigating the incident.

What caused the wall in the locker room to fall remains uncertain.

Walker County Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood confirmed the ongoing investigation into what he describes as a "bizarre" incident.

"It's one of the most bizarre incidents I've ever heard of," he said. "You expect if there is to be an injury it will be on the field and not before you even take the field. We're just very blessed that it wasn't worse than what it was."

Hagood continued, "None of the boys were acting out of the ordinary. They weren't rough housing or playing around — pushing on the wall, in other words, for it to collapse. It sounds like the wall just fell."

He said one of the students injured was a senior who didn't get to play his last football game.

"We'll have to let the fire marshal do his investigation," he said. "It's going through the process."    

Gann said students visited players who were in the hospital over the weekend, and he is proud of how they reacted to such an unexpected turn of events.

"I think they handled it well. They handled it with maturity. To be able to come back and play a game ... missing three starters out of five, they were in the game the whole time," he said. "They were in a position to possibly win the game. I can't say enough about their heart and how dedicated they were to showing up and representing the community with pride."