PHOENIX – Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl. On a high school soccer field in Queen Creek, a sophomore goalkeeper remained motionless on the pitch. Miles away, his two parents were glued to their iPad, watching helplessly, frozen with fear.
Because of Arizona Interscholastic Association’s rules limiting attendance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason and Holli Stella hadn’t been allowed to attend their son Gavin’s Basha High School varsity away games in person.
At first, it just seemed like an inconvenience. Then Jan. 22 happened. Now the Valley couple is urging the AIA to change its policies. They believe allowing parents to attend games is critical to the safety of the athletes.
Watching the game on a device while attending their other son’s flag football game at a park 25 minutes away from Gavin’s game, the two parents saw a brief commotion in front of the net and a collision. The game had stopped with a player laying on the ground.
They realized it was their son, and that’s when panic set in.
“There is no worse pain as a mother than knowing your child was hurt and not being there for him,” Holli said.
Gavin took the full force of a teammate’s knee in his face as he dove to make a save. He suffered several fractures to the orbital bones in his left eye and a badly broken nose. For roughly a minute, the sophomore was unconscious on the field.
These details – the knee, the unconsciousness, the instantly obvious damage to his face – were not immediately clear to Jason and Holli, though.
“We just saw him not get up and then saw the people waving like, ‘Come on, get over here,’” Jason said. “We were waiting for so long. Time is goofy when you’re under stress, but it seemed like he was on the field for close to 10 minutes.”
Desperate for information, Holli called the team mom, the only away team parent allowed to attend the game. The message over the phone was brief and unsettling. Jason and Holli rushed to their car.
“That mom basically told my wife that Gavin was hurt pretty bad and that they thought his nose was broken,” Jason said. “They basically said we should get over there.”
When they arrived at Casteel High School, Gavin’s face had already swelled considerably. His nose was bleeding and he was crying from the pain.
Quickly, they drove him to Dignity Health in Mesa where he underwent a CAT scan, the results came back around 10 p.m. and the Stellas learned that Gavin needed surgery to repair the damage. There were concerns that the impact might have caused a brain bleed.
“They said there may be a frontal lobe brain hemorrhage,” Jason said. “I freaked out there and I said, ‘OK then let’s go right now.’ But as we kept waiting, we still had heard nothing about a transfer. When I asked, they told me that the ambulance wouldn’t be there until about 2:30 in the morning. They said that at 10.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, it was 4 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23. Shortly thereafter, Gavin was taken to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where more tests ruled out a brain hemorrhage. He underwent nearly two hours of surgery beginning at about 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon.
Gavin’s injuries and the subsequent surgery have led Jason and Holli to pursue changes in the AIA’s attendance policy.
“You’re telling me that each kid on the away team can’t have one parent at a game in an outdoor soccer stadium that fits 1,000 people?” Jason said. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Would (Gavin) have reacted a little bit better if he heard our voices quicker? He was crying and in shock and hurting when we got there. He had to wait 30 minutes for us to get there.”
According to AIA executive director David Hines, though, making such a change is not that simple. One of the primary factors in the AIA’s attendance policy is the average daily infection rate.
He said the AIA’s sports medicine advisory committee meets often to review the health situation in the county. But with an average infection rate of 3,191 new cases per-day in Maricopa County, according to the New York Times, guidelines must remain in place in order to remain in compliance with state rules and to keep athletes and their families safe.
“We decided that because of those rules we would limit attendance to home-team parents only,” Hines told Cronkite News. “We will continue to monitor the numbers and communicate. We can start to relax some of the restrictions we put into place when they feel it’s appropriate to do so.”
The concerns of parents are foremost in the minds of AIA board members, according to Hines.
The AIA has seen the petitions to get parents in the stands, like the one which had more than 3,500 signatures as of Feb. 2 and notes that away-team parents should be allowed in the stands because “two underage players have already been injured during games with their parents watching online.” It goes on to say that attendance of a parent or guardian should be permitted “in case of unforeseen injuries that may happen during the games, especially if the game location is a considerable drive away.”
“Our decisions can’t be based on these injuries,” Hines said. “These are kids that are involved in educational athletics. As a parent, I understand you want to be there to help protect your kids. However, these are young men and women, and we have protocols for our sports in place.”
Hines said that AIA protocols are constantly evaluated and will be modified as needed based on the health situation in Arizona. His message to parents is to continue to stay strong through a difficult and complicated situation.
“We were originally told not to play at all,” Hines said. “The board, by a 5-4 re-vote, determined that we would go at the discretion of each school, and if they wanted to continue to play. We are very fortunate to be playing right now.
“We’re not trying to punish anybody. We’re trying to allow kids to have the opportunity to play. If we can relax things, we will certainly do it.”
As they push for change in local guidelines, Jason and Holli have replayed Gavin’s nightmare ordeal, which spanned multiple days, over and over in their heads.
For nearly 19 hours after the surgery, Gavin complained of severe pain in his eyes, a burning sensation that kept him from even opening his eyelids.
“It wasn’t until the third trauma nurse who said we needed to look under his eyelids to see what was wrong,” Jason said.
He said he and his wife nearly passed out when they did.
“We just saw black when they opened his eyelids,” Jason said. “The nurse just said, ‘Oh, we need to call the surgeon.’ They called the surgeon and he just flat out said that they forgot to remove the plastic eye caps they put on his eyes. They had to remove them when he was awake.”
The results of the post-surgical mishap left Gavin temporarily blind for almost 72 hours the medical team “pulled a layer of tissue from his eye” removing the caps.
“It was hell,” Jason said, “but we’re getting through it.”
The last week and a half has been an emotional roller coaster for the Stella family. Gavin is slowly recovering at home and his parents said they are confident he will bounce back stronger than ever.
They are also adamant that the guidelines in Arizona change and want parents to be near their kids in the event something happens to them.
“My child was unconscious 25 minutes away from me,” Holli said. “I couldn’t help him, and I didn’t really even know what happened. Nobody else should have to go through this.”