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posted: 8/2/2013 5:00 AM

New law just a start for paralyzed athletes

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  • Steve Herbst, Don Grossnickle, center, and Kenneth Jennings

    Steve Herbst, Don Grossnickle, center, and Kenneth Jennings

By Don Grossnickle

Effective July 1, schools in Illinois are required to insure student athletes.

Getting to this point has been a long, hard struggle, leading to a big event this Sunday, when Gov. Pat Quinn is scheduled to sign the law.

Perhaps a few pennies can be added to tournament spectator admission so the taxpayer ideally will hardly be burdened by these newly mandated costs? The mandated insurance protection covers families against catastrophic injury with a provided minimum $3 million policy.

Athletes' parents should beware and take notice: each athlete's family health care coverage is primary, and the school district's insurance is, secondary.

Sadly, the insurance coverage law announcement comes too late for four deceased student athletes: Rob Komosa, Rocky Clark, Michael Schwass, Travis Hearn. Also, too late to help three other living catastrophic injury survivor athletes: J.J. O"Connor, Steve Herbst and Kenneth Jennings.

Across the nation each year, as many as 100 high school athletes and families encounter life-changing catastrophic injury. Rarely is a decent insurance safety net in place to ease the unimaginable financial burden that comes with a broken neck and broken hearts.

Sadly, local suburban school districts have failed to voluntarily insure student athletes. Why did they resist?

Many of us are far from satisfied with the passage of this version of the law. South suburban District 218 has had a voluntary $5 million to $7.5 million dollar policy in effect for a long while. This foresight helped saved the life of Robbins' Eisenhower High School athlete Rocky Clark, who in 2000 broke his neck in football.

"It costs us less than a cup of coffee," Superintendent John Byrne says, "to do the right thing."

Arlington Heights paralyzed resident Rob Komosa broke his neck at practice in 1999. He had to sue District 214 and battle for five years before the school board decided to settle out of court. The gracious community kept the Komosas' hope alive. Strangely, the IHSA at this time chooses not to insure local student athletic contests. Why?

It is time now to celebrate the positive steps taken in a forward direction accomplished by this groundbreaking legislation. Over the years, thousands came to the compassionate rescue loving these broken-neck boys. I personally thank the local media who refused to forget them. I thank my state Rep. David Harris, who co-sponsored the bill. I thank my state Sen. Matt Murphy, who voted in favor. I thank South Side legislators from Rocky Clark's Robbins neighborhood for proposing the legislation: Sen. Napoleon Harris and Rep. Will Davis.

I thank District 218 for providing an outstanding role model in setting the high standard ahead for future Illinois and national legislation that will hopefully step up the limits of future coverage.

I pray that our entire sports-loving nation will soon wake up and notice what Illinois has done here in pioneering strides of caring. In my dreams, I see a new day coming where a comprehensive safety net is in place. This ideal safety net arranged for in every school and state will supply ample monies for sustaining long-term injured athlete recovery.

I dream of a collaboratively built strong safety net crafted by parents, schools and state and national associations, all working together.

Since 1999, I have proudly walked the comeback journey with some of these Illinois boys and families. The experience has enriched and changed my life for the better.

Today with the passage of this new legislation, I believe we are enhancing the quality of life for Illinois high school athletes and potentially raising the standard of care for all athletes across our great nation.

Don Grossnickle is a Catholic deacon from Arlington Heights and co-founder of the Gridiron Alliance, an organization dedicated to support of athletes who suffer catastrophic injuries.

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