In the back of a funeral home on Seattle’s south end, a Vietnamese immigrant father mourns the boy who loved football, the Seahawks, and a defensive backfield called the Legion of Boom.
“He was a great kid and had respect,” Ngon Bui says softly. “I would be talking to my friends and always he comes up and talks to them, people he didn’t know. He had so much respect.”
His 17-year-old son, Kenney, lies in a coffin in a room down the hall. The coffin’s lid is open and Kenney Bui is wearing glasses and his Evergreen high school uniform jersey. Beside him rests a ball signed by his football teammates. Already a Buddhist monk has chanted for an hour, a group of Samoan classmates wearing traditional lavalavas have been singing hymns in rich, deep voices, and a feast of meats and rice and teas have been set on a table to feed the departed soul.
Incense burns. A smoky haze fills the air.
Kenney Bui had a 4.0 grade point average at Evergreen High in White Center, a lower-income suburb of migrants and factory workers. He was in Evergreen’s tech program. He might have gone to the University of Washington next year, as many of Evergreen’s top tech students do.
Then, last Monday he became the fourth US high school football player to die in a month. He stepped off the field during Evergreen’s game against Highline high school on 2 October and seemed dazed. As athletic trainers from the Highline school district, which includes both schools, asked him questions from the concussion protocol, his eyes closed. An ambulance was summoned. It took him to Harborview medical center in downtown Seattle where he never woke up. He was pronounced dead three days later.
“Blunt force trauma,” his autopsy read.
The National Center for Catastrophic for Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina says 30 players have now died in the last 10 years. The causes have varied from head injures to broken necks to heat exhaustion. Experts have suggested that still-developing teenage brains and inferior equipment play a role. Some believe kids hold back reporting their injuries fearful of being labeled as soft. But no one really knows. The answers are not obvious. This is the story of the most recent death of an alarming trend.
When Kenney first asked to play football three years ago, Ngon said no. Like Kenney, Ngon loved watching football but he also knew football players got hurt. Kenney was small, only 5ft 8in, 150lbs. Ngon worried that Kenney would get injured too, just like the players on TV.
“We have to think about that first,” he told his wife Nguyet after Kenney gave them the parental release form that would allow him to play.
She signed the form.
After Kenney tore ligaments in his knee two years ago, Ngon took him to the hospital for the surgery.
“I don’t want you playing no more,” he said in the car.
Later that day, following the operation, Ngon again pleaded to his son. Please, he said, think about your future. Can’t you play another sport?
“Dad, you think like that, but my regular sport right now is football,” Kenney said. “That’s all I can do.”
Then this season, on 4 September, Kenney was removed from a game with a mild concussion, and once more Ngon begged his son to stop playing. When a doctor cleared Kenney 13 days later, Ngon threatened to not sign the school district form acknowledging that he knew about the concussion. He told Kenney about a news story he had seen about a high school football player who had died in a game. Couldn’t he see the danger?
Kenney ran to his bedroom and slammed the door.
Ngon stares silently. He is sitting at a table in a small room normally used for funeral planning. A sign advertising payment plans rests on a shelf behind him, a display of casket medallions hangs from the wall. He shakes his head.
There was nothing he could do, he says.
“Anything like school or work, my wife and I make the decision,” Ngon continues. “When a sport comes in, he makes his own decision no matter what. We would not be able to stop him. He makes his own decision.”
He is silent again.
“I know where he’s coming from, too,” says Joe Van, a Highline school board member, who was raised in the district by Vietnamese immigrants and has been listening to Ngon. “I’m from a family of 10, and you know what? The parents do make the decision as far as your academics, but when sports and extracurricular activities come into play, mom and dad let you do it.”
In the Bui family’s culture, Kenney was old enough to defy his parents’ wishes. Ngon could urge his boy to stop but was not allowed to say no.
During practice, my mentor asked something.
Are you intimidated by the other teams Kenney?” Jorge asked.
“I’m a bit intimidated because this is my first time going against another team,” I said.
“Don’t be intimidated, you’ll overcome the fear. Just focus on yourself and how well you do. The reason to go to camp is to get better at what you love to do,” Jorge said.
“Thanks bro, I’ll try not to,” I said.
– From an essay, “My Place of Refuge” by Kenney Bui, 18 December 2013, when he was 15 years old
Sitting beside Bui, Terri McMahan, the athletic director for the Highline school district wonders if she has done enough. A slender woman with a shock of light hair and an energy that defies her age of 61, she came to Highline in 2010 determined to rebuild the athletic departments in the area’s immigrant district. Nothing was more important to her than safety.
Her first year she made an unpopular decision to drop football at one of the district’s high schools, Tyee, when only 19 players came out for the team. When she pressed the coach for his opinion of how many of those 19 were legitimate varsity players, he told her: four.
She raised money for new gymnastics equipment, terrified that someone was going to get hurt, worked to get upgrades of facilities, and found the money to hire three full-time athletic trainers for the district’s four high schools. Few districts spend the money for full-time trainers. She thought it essential. Nothing was more important than a student’s health She even started an athletic training class at each high school in which students are required to spend 90 hours a semester assisting the full-time trainers.
She established injury standards and protocols for concussions. Athletes were urged to be honest about their injuries. She even established an arrangement in which the King County sheriff’s deputy at games could instantly summon an ambulance at games.
And still, a child had died on her watch.
“It’s a real kick in the teeth,” she had said the day before as she sat in an office at the district headquarters. “Its devastating, Its my worst nightmare. It’s any athletic administrator’s worst nightmare: to lose a child doing what they love to do, and not being able to prevent it.”
McMahan wonders if Kenney had another concussion between early September and the Highline game. So many kids refuse to reveal injuries knowing that if they say something they might be kept from games. Already, a concussion had cost Kenney two weeks of football. He wouldn’t have wanted to miss any more.
She went to the hospital in Seattle on the night Kenney was hurt. Then she stayed. She sat with Ngon and Nguyet in the waiting as the doctors operated on their son. She listened while they talked about Kenney’s life, of his football dreams, of his excellent grades, of how he was always such a good kid. When the doctors came out to consult the family, Ngon waved her in. She had come to help them, and in doing so she had become one of them.
She listened as the doctors described Kenney’s condition. She looked at X-rays and medical reports. She heard their grim prognosis. Then she waited for more than two days as the Buis hoped for a miracle.
When none came, last Monday morning, McMahan watched as life support was disconnected and the boy with so much potential died. Later, after the Buis went home to take showers and call relatives, she remained in Kenney’s room because it seemed wrong to leave him alone.
And as she sat there by herself with the body of a football player from one of her teams, she felt a remarkable peace. After the frenzy of the previous days, everyone had let go. The fighting had stopped.
“Who has that in their career?” she says later.
But it felt right to be there. In the most horrible thing that had happened to McMahan as an athletic director she wanted nothing more than to be with the Buis. She had come to know a boy she never knew in life. Saying goodbye was hard.
Then when the Buis returned to the hospital the most amazing thing happened.
Ngon Bui looked at her and said:
“Do you like Vietnamese food?”
“Yes!” McMahan replied.
“Then you come to dinner with us.”
They took her to Seattle’s International District, with its rows of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, and they sat her with them at a table in a favorite Vietnamese place. They passed her plates of traditional foods and laughed as she fumbled her chopsticks.
During the dinner, Ngon told her the story of his life. He told her how he was in the Vietnamese air force during the Vietnam war, and how he left on a Chinook helicopter in 1975 as the Viet Cong moved in, and how eventually he wound up in the US working as a custodian for the Seattle public school system. He told her that in 1991 he flew back to Vietnam for the first time since he had left to meet the wife his mother and mother-in-law had picked out for him.
And when he met this woman he said it “was love at first sight.”
Three nights later, the Buis invited McMahan out to dinner again. This time they asked her to bring along the superintendent, Susan Enfield, and a small handful of other district administrators. That evening, Enfield sat beside Kenney’s younger brother Kirbey, a sophomore at Evergreen, and he pulled out his phone to show her pictures of Kenney. Then he told he of the dreams of his own. He hoped someday to go to Cal Tech, he said.
When the dinner was over, the school administrators begged Ngon to pay for the meal. He waved his hands. No. They had helped his family at the worst moment, he said. For this kindness, he said, the family had to repay the administrators.
“What do you say to something like that?” Enfield would later ask.
Ngon Bui loves football, too. Seattle was getting an NFL team when he first arrived from Vietnam. The team was called the Seahawks and every autumn Sunday he sat before the television – an immigrant new to America – watching the most American of sports. One day in 2004, when Kenney was six, the boy joined him.
“What is this thing, dad?” he asked
“Football, Kenney,” Ngon replied.
For the next several weeks, Kenney was filled with questions about football. How do they play? What are the rules? How does someone win? Finally, he asked, what team Ngon liked.
“I like the Seahawks,” Ngon told him.
“OK, you love the Seahawks?” Kenney said. “I love the Seahawks too.”
For years this became their ritual; father and son and the Seattle Seahawks. A few years ago, when the Seahawks became one of the NFL’s best teams, Kenney picked Earl Thomas as his favorite player. At just 5ft 10in, Thomas is the smallest player on the Legion of Boom, but he plays with a fearlessness that Kenney adored. He too thought of himself as fearless. It’s easy to imagine Kenney in his own Legion of Boom, flying across the field to make tackles, knocking ballcarriers onto their backs.
Kenney had a favorite Earl Thomas jersey, with Thomas’s No29 in gray, and he wore it for days, refusing to let Nguyet clean it for fear the numbers or letters might come off in the wash.
A family friend, Cecilia Vu, now a freshman at the University of Washington, describes Kenney as a quiet boy who always had a little smirk that burst into a smile as if there was a joke and everyone was in on it.
“He had a great group of friends,” she says. “I can’t imagine what they are going through. Whenever you saw Kenney you saw his friends. They were never apart.”
“He loved nothing more than to mess with the teachers in a very kind way,” says Eric Burns, a teacher at Evergreen. “He was such an amazing student.”
But Kenney had a secret, something Ngon never knew, something the boy would not tell his father. Ngon reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick black wallet. His thumbs shake as he digs through the wallet finally extracting a small plastic card. Kenney’s driver’s license. On the front of the license is a small red heart, meaning he wanted to donate his organs in case he died.
For a moment Ngon clutches the card.
“I am so proud of my son,” he says. “He already knows they need him. He was thinking he wanted to have another person to have live, another person who needs an organ to live.”
“We were talking about the debate over whether our kids should play football, is it too dangerous?” Enfield says. “It’s not that simple.”
She is sitting in the back of the funeral home at the same round table in front of the same pricing plan advertisement and sales display for casket medallions. She is looking at McMahan but speaking to Evergreen’s most famous graduate, former NFL quarterback Jack Thompson, who has brought cards from Earl Thomas and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. He has also placed on the table a plastic bag with an authentic Earl Thomas jersey that the player has signed himself.
McMahan shakes her head.
“Something like this, it’s so statistically small,” she says.
There have been times when McMahan has asked herself if she should remove football from the district. Too many of the Highline district’s best athletes get poached by the more lucrative parochial schools. In some cases, families move to wealthier districts with bigger sports programs. She worries her schools’ rosters are too lean, the players too inexperienced to safely compete.
But she does not want to do this. There is something about football that pulls a campus and community together like no other sport, with bands and cheerleaders and parents in the stands. Football is something everyone can touch. Football gives a school an identity. Even if the team doesn’t win there is power that comes from uniting behind a name.
That’s why she has added football at the district’s junior high schools and allocated money from an Alaska Airlines grant in the name of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to start a weight training program. Her idea isn’t less football, but football played by boys who are stronger and more experienced and less likely to get hurt.
For too long the district has wallowed in its identity as the downtrodden suburb of Seattle: the place where a teacher named Mary Kay LeTourneau famously seduced, then later married, one of her students, and the home of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. Tyee students used to boast of being at “a ghetto school.” Thompson laughs about the time he first got to the NFL and told television interviewer he was from “Rat City, Washington,” a reference to White Center’s rodent infestation.
Enfield wants to change that. “Poverty is not a learning disability,” she tells her teachers.
It seems odd to be talking about the dreams of a once-beleaguered district while one of their students is lying in a casket in a room just down the hall, And yet from the horror of Kenney Bui’s death has come something good. McMahan and Enfield can see it in the profound conversations they have had with students these past few days. They see it in the Samoan boys in their lavalavas singing before Kenney Bui’s casket. And they see it in the way the Ngon and Nguyet Bui have opened their family to them.
“You had a wonderful young man who was taken away but his spirit is alive and has permeated the whole district,” Thompson says. “What a legacy can come with someone like Kenney.”
“What this family has done speaks volumes,” he continues. “Their culture can bring up this district. With the right leaders you can bring out the strengths of these cultures.”
On the evening of 2 October, Ngon was at work at Washington middle school in Seattle. Because Evergreen’s games are on Friday nights and Ngon works Fridays, he never got to see his son play. This is one of his greatest regrets. For some reason his phone had turned off as he worked. During a break, just after 7pm, he turned it back on to call his wife. A message from her was waiting.
“You have to go to the hospital,” she said. “Kenney has been hurt so bad.”
When Ngon reached Harborview, just blocks from the hospital where Kenney had been born, the doctors were rushing him into surgery. Hours later, they emerged from the operating room and told Ngon they had cut open Kenney’s skull. During the surgery they found blood on one side of the boy’s head. There was damage to the brain and the damage was severe. They put Kenney’s skull back together but they feared there was little more they could do.
“I’m so proud of my son,” Ngon says. “Even when he passes away on the football field I am proud of him; the way he respect people, young and old.”
Every night Kenney would call Ngon at work, always with the same question: “How you doing?”
And every night Ngon would tell Kenney to take care of his mother while he was at work.
And every night Kenney would always say: “Dad, don’t worry about it, I set the lock on the door.”
In the back of the funeral home, Ngon is quiet again. He reaches for the plastic bag with the authentic Seahawks jersey sent by Earl Thomas.
“Is that 29?” he asks.
Yes,” McMahan says. “Earl Thomas himself signed this for you. This is to keep.”
Ngon Bui runs his fingers over the bag then clutches it hard in his hand. His breath shortens.
“I want to keep that,” he says, his voice quivering. “And I want to wear that jersey so every time I wear it I think of Kenney.
“My favorite son.”
The muffled chants of the Buddhist monk trickle though the wall. Down the hall, a small group of teenagers slowly approach Kenney Bui’s opened coffin. On a porch outside several students smile as they watched a video of him captured weeks ago on somebody’s phone.
Ngon Bui drops his head. And a father weeps for the boy who loved football, the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom.
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Seattle, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14th October 2015 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010