by Jaydelle Herbert
photography by Jashelle Ranson
For University of La Verne quarterback Rollie Dykstra, it was an important game in front of hometown friends. Dykstra was a Redlands native, star quarterback on the Redlands High School team, and Saturday’s Oct. 19, 2002, game was with the University of Redlands. Never mind that his La Verne team, going into this game, had won just one game and lost three. This was the ULV homecoming game, with hundreds of fans in the stands, and Redlands was a historic SCIAC rival. But despite the marquee build up for Dykstra and La Verne, the actual game was not going so well. La Verne was down 14-0 with 8:14 remaining in the second quarter.
Dykstra was determined to change that score before halftime. On an option run, instead of pitching the ball back to teammate Justin Wolfchief, he kept the ball and ran to the left. He pushed his left hand off his linebacker’s back and lunged toward the end zone, missing a Redlands tackle, in hopes of starting a Leopard scoring rally. But he was hit before reaching the goal line by Bulldog senior Scott Murtishaw. Rollie lost control of the ball and fumbled. While Redlands players had their hands in the air indicating they recovered the fumble, and La Verne players were still fighting to gain ball possession, Rollie remained prone on his stomach. A Redlands player, thinking it was a normal hit, pushed Rollie’s lower back and shoulder down while he got up.
Dykstra was slow to get to his feet. ULV Campus Times Sports Editor Matt Paulson and Editor in Chief Amanda Stutevoss reported that Dykstra was helped off the field by head athletic trainer Jim May and freshman offensive lineman Jon Marty. “He came off the field very slowly and then collapsed,” says Paul Alvarez, University of La Verne full professor, and kinesiology and clinical coordinator in the Athletic Training Program. Play resumed. On the next scrimmage, Redlands running back Les Simon committed to a long run and ran the ball back to the La Verne 15-yard line. Quickly, Redlands scored another 10 points, which made the score 24-0.
“La Verne players on the sidelines near Rollie saw him start to struggle, then ran to let May know he was not his normal self,” says Alvarez. A Los Angeles Times story written by Lance Pugmire, now a senior adjunct professor in the ULV Communications Department, reported, “A teammate said, ‘I looked in his eyes, and it looked like all the lights went out.’”
“Emergency protocols were put in place to stabilize his neck and spine after he suffered a severe head injury,” says Alvarez, adding, “Rollie Dykstra was lying on his back on the sidelines near the north 20-yard line in convulsions. A tube was placed down Dykstra’s throat to open his lungs to help stabilize him.” A huddle of athletic trainers was tending to him, including May, athletic training supervisor Paul Alvarez and athletic training student A.J. Tsapanos. “The eyes of the homecoming crowd turned to the La Verne sidelines when the officials called an early halftime,” says Alvarez. This would be the last time the star player would ever play football, walk or see normally again.
Shane Rodrigues, operations manager for the ULV Broadcast Department, was in the television studio vehicle helping lead a live broadcast of the game for LVTV-3. From the control truck, he recalls the monitors suddenly went quiet. “That was very unusual,” he says. “Up to that moment, the crowd was roaring because we were close to scoring.” The more than 1,300 spectators in the stands were not moving. They stared at the field in disbelief.
Alvarez says a helicopter was called to transport Dykstra quickly to a Los Angeles hospital. Rodrigues and Broadcast Professors Mike Laponis and Don Pollock were told to immediately take down a two-story tower scaffold that held a north field LVTV-3 camera so the helicopter could land. They and their broadcast students quickly took on the task that would usually take a whole afternoon of heavy lifting. Then the helicopter was called off.
Alvarez says that the helicopter ride would have been longer than immediately transporting Dykstra via a waiting ambulance to Pomona Valley Hospital, a five-minute drive. He says that a Pomona Valley Hospital neurosurgeon was standing by, relaying instructions to the first aid responders on the field. The doctor told the first responders and athletic trainers to immediately get Dykstra to the hospital. The homecoming crowd watched the ambulance drive off the field and heard its siren wail into the distance. The LVTV-3 student broadcasters announced an early halftime. The football teams ran off the field to their respective locker rooms.
A subdued halftime crowd watched as Shane Rodrigues came on the field as the homecoming master of ceremonies and announced seniors ShaMira DeJurnett and Geoffrey Gillison as queen and king. The pageantry was there, but the joy had left the stadium. Then the crowd heard long-time Ortmayer Stadium sports announcer Bob Dyer (now a ULV Trustee) announce that the second half of the homecoming game was canceled. Coaching staff, athletic directors and presidents of both institutions decided to stop the game. Redlands was announced as winning, 24-0. The Campus Times reported that ULV Athletic Director Jim Paschal agreed with the decision of calling off the game. “You have 200 people on the sidelines who have no interest in playing,” he said.
The injury attracted much outside press attention. Yet, University of La Verne administrators mandated that broadcast professors not share video tape of the hit. “NBC requested footage of the incident. I was instructed to give them game footage, not the footage of that play,” Rodrigues says. “They weren’t happy about that.”
Three days later, the ULV football team and Azusa Pacific University canceled their Oct. 26 game in honor of Dysktra, who remained in critical condition. The Los Angeles Times said Paschal supported the cancellation of the non-conference game. “Our players and coaching staff are not yet ready to participate in a competitive event at this time.”
Green and orange ribbons with Rollie’s name and number were appeared around campus. The Campus Times printed a picture of green and orange ribbons on Dykstra’s football locker. The La Verne community organized a candle lighting ceremony to pray for his recovery.
In the hospital, Dykstra fought for his life. After nine days, his condition improved to “serious.” The Campus Times reported that about four weeks later, Roland Dykstra said his son emerged from the coma. On Nov. 11, 2002, his brother’s birthday, Rollie whispered his first words: “Happy birthday.” “Slowly, he started talking more and more and more,” Roland Dykstra said in the Campus Times. Eventually, Rollie was transferred to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he received acute therapy. On March 11, Dykstra moved to the Center for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield, where he continued to battle his ailments. His father said in the Campus Times, “CNS has gotten him within 90-100 percent of where his long-term memory was.” His short-term memory, however, was challenged. The Campus Times said, “Usually accompanying the family to Bakersfield is Kayley Marie, Dykstra’s then 4-year-old daughter. Because of Dykstra’s blindness, he would ask his mother Maria Dykstra to hold Kayley Marie up to him so he could feel how big she is getting.”
“That really breaks my heart,” his mother said in the Campus Times. “It’s hard for me to believe that he cannot see, that he cannot walk.” In late December 2003, Rollie was finally able to return home. The family installed an addition to their two-story home that included handicapped facilities, in addition to two easily accessible exits.
The legal action started swiftly. Roland Dykstra Sr. told the L.A. Times, “I want to get to the truth.” He hired an investigator to find out what ULV athletic officials knew about his son’s headaches before the injury. “You know what’s happening?” Dykstra Sr. said to Pugmire, “They’re putting up a wall.” To the L.A. Times, Don Morel, La Verne head football coach, said, “Earlier the week before the injury, he was aware Dykstra reported a ‘minor’ headache to a trainer Oct. 7, two days after the Leopards’ 30-6 loss to Cal Lutheran.”
Unknown was whether Dykstra disclosed this information to athletic trainers. Also, the L.A. Times reported that Dysktra ignored a trainer’s request by suiting up with his helmet to show that he was physically able to play despite his headaches. It reported a player statement that Dysktra was vomiting and showed signs of excessive sweating just hours before the homecoming game. The last uncertainty, according to Pugmire, was Dykstra’s girlfriend saying how Rollie told her his “head was throbbing after the Cal Lutheran game.”
Alvarez says the Dykstra family sued the University for negligence and made claims that the University wouldn’t allow him to seek medical attention. Alvarez recalls that the University settled the case with Rollie Dykstra. He does not know the money amount. “This was the best solution, rather than going to court—for his family not to be taken care of financially.”
Twenty Years Later
No one at the University of La Verne knows where Dykstra is or whether his condition continued to improve. A Dec. 12, 2003, Campus Times article said Dykstra was legally blind, did not have control of his left side, and suffered from a condition called dystonia where he could not relax his muscles, which was remedied by an Intrathecal Baclofen pump. His father likened compared his condition to a stroke.
Alvarez, recalls the University reached out to the Dykstra family to see how they were doing, but the University officials were given the “cold shoulder.” “After Rollie was admitted to the hospital, everything we knew about his recovery was from the newspapers,” he says. Alvarez says it took him 20 years to be able to talk about the event. “I didn’t know Rollie personally, but for all of us to see that his life was modified from the injury and not knowing how he would respond to that, makes it hard to see a life change like that.”
Don Morel, head ULV football coach of the 2002 team and now head football coach at Wabash College, Indiana, still defers to talk about the incident. In an email reply, he says, “Honesty I have no desire to talk about this tragedy. I can’t imagine the Dykstra family wants to either. The 2002 football team suffered together, came together and stuck together, and I am proud of them still to this day.”
Looking back, Pugmire, now a sports journalist at USA Today, says, “This was a precursor to many of the issues we see now even at the NFL level. You have to understand that this isn’t USC. There is not going to be full medical staff on the sidelines here—but there should be. There should at least be a neurologist on call.”
Pugmire says that the attitude toward concussions and head injuries in football has changed completely. “The concussion protocol and signage of concussions are so much more thorough than what it was 20 years ago. Getting buzzed was part of the game. Getting your bell rung was part of the game.” He has seen the game grow in a new direction, and he believes that Dykstra’s situation, and the attention it drew, essentially changed football forever. “Thank God football is evolving. As we look back at Dykstra, he shouldn’t have been allowed to go back in the game. We shouldn’t have taken his word. That situation was more than a player getting knocked out. There had to be a swift and immediate response to this.”
Laponis says he remembers how devastating the injury was. “It was pretty horrible. I remember that night, the whole University was asking how could this happen.” Pollock says he believes that the injury left a mark on the community. “It was a really unfortunate incident, and I think it had an impact on La Verne sports moving forward because people realized that there are serious injuries that people need to be aware about.”
Alvarez, trained to face tough trauma situations, is still deeply affected. His eyes tear up when he talks. “The things I really appreciate about that day were the people who stepped up and said, ‘What was the right thing to do. How can we take care of the player and people around us?’” ■