About 200 people gathered at Federal Way Memorial Stadium on Thursday night to remember the 16-year-old who died Tuesday after a workout with the football team.
Allen Harris, the youngest of eight grandchildren, was known in his tight-knit family as the laid-back one. His persona was so much different from the one being shared at a Thursday-night vigil, his aunt had to grab a mike and question the crowd gathered at Federal Way Memorial Stadium.
“Who was this kid?” said DonYeta Villavaso-Madden, injecting laughter into a somber ceremony to honor her nephew who died Tuesday of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The 16-year-old was participating in the final parts of a football conditioning workout when he collapsed and began to convulse, according to teammates.
Harris was unable to be resuscitated by South King Fire and Rescue and was transported to St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way where he died.
Teammates organized Thursday’s vigil, adorning the south end of the chain-link fence of the same field where the incident happened with red, white and blue balloons — some shaped like stars and hearts. Approximately 200 people ranging from Harris’ parents, relatives, students, teachers, community members, district officials and the fire crew listened to memories about Harris. The would-be junior lineman was described as a dancer, jokester, giving of his last dollar and motivator.
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“When I hear all of these stories of who Allen was, he maybe said three words around me,” Villavaso-Madden quipped, making the audience laugh.
“We’re still in shock,” Villavaso-Madden said after the 90-minute ceremony. “I wake up crying … it’s unbelievable.”
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young people, including young athletes, according to the American Heart Association’s website, which adds that there can be no symptoms and physical activity can trigger dangerous arrhythmias.
Dr. Wayne Hwang, a cardiologist at Virginia Mason and president-elect of the American Heart Association’s Puget Sound board, said the circumstances of Harris’ death are part of a bigger debate regarding heart testing for athletes.
“There’s issues of cost-effectiveness, sensitivity, specificity of the tests because it’s still very rare,” Hwang said. “Even among hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (cases), only a very, very small fraction have sudden death. So the issue of detection is a very tricky one. But almost certainly, on a physical exam by a provider, you will hear a murmur. The second thing is an EKG is almost always abnormal.”
Weather might have played a role as a stressor on the heart. The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the Puget Sound region this week as temperatures reached into the 90s. The highest temps were between 2 and 8 p.m., according to the weather service.
Federal Way’s football workouts were from 2-4 p.m.
The school district suspended all outdoor athletic activities at its middle and high schools for 72 hours to “closely verify and examine the protocols we have in place,” said Tammy Campbell, Federal Way Public Schools superintendent, who attended Thursday’s vigil. Frequent water breaks and CPR training are among the safeguards.
This week’s football sessions were conducted by the assistant coaching staff. Eagles head coach John Meagher was vacationing in Italy. He posted a message on Facebook that “players and coaches are devastated and heartbroken by Allen’s passing. Right now, like all of us that knew Allen, we are searching for answers. But mostly, I just want you all to know that the world got a little less kind (Tuesday) with Allen’s passing.”
Meagher’s message was read aloud Thursday. The team closed the ceremony by forming a semicircle near the south end zone and chanting “Brotherhood.”
The players said they’re dedicating the football season to Harris. Federal Way’s Pacific Islanders Club, which Harris was a member despite not sharing the same ancestry, will do the same for its competitive dance performances.
“I was so proud of Allen,” said Mane Tuiaana, director of the club. “And it was nice for the family to see how much of an impact Allen had on all of our lives. They just knew him as someone who was very quiet in their family, he was quiet here, but very popular. So it was important to let the family know his community had his back … it was a healing moment for all of us.”