Jets' Leggett helping raise awareness for abdominal injuries
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Jordan Leggett remembers the sudden buzz on the sideline and in the stands as cellphones lit up with texts delivering the scary news.
A young player from a rival high school football squad in Florida had been seriously injured during a game and he might not make it.
"Everybody on the team where I was from was like, 'Oh, man, he must've just got like a big hit,'" the New York Jets tight end recalled. "We heard later that he passed away, so it was kind of a big deal."
Taylor Haugen was only 15 on Aug. 30, 2008, when he went out across the middle of the field for a pass, reached up and grabbed the football — and was immediately slammed into by two defenders, one to the front of his body and the other to his back. The impact to Haugen's abdominal area ruptured his liver and the Niceville High School wide receiver was rushed to the hospital, where he died a few hours later.
"The surgeons who worked on my child all night said it looked like a car crash," Kathy Haugen said in a telephone interview.
Leggett, who was a wide receiver for nearby Navarre High School in the Florida Panhandle, had never met Haugen, but was shaken by his stunning death. Ten years later, Leggett is honoring his memory with his "Touchdowns For Taylor" campaign, working with Haugen's parents and the Taylor Haugen Foundation to raise awareness about abdominal injuries in youth football and trying to educate parents, players and coaches about how to better prevent them.
Shortly after Leggett was drafted by New York in the fifth round out of Clemson last year, his agents asked if he was interested in supporting any charities. Leggett talked to someone from back home, and they mentioned the Taylor Haugen Foundation.
"It just brought back all those memories from back in high school because I was there (in Florida) when it happened," Leggett said. "So, it was just something I wanted to be a part of."
The 23-year-old Leggett started the "Touchdowns For Taylor" charity campaign last season through the sports fundraising platform Pledge It, with donors contributing money for every touchdown catch by the Jets this season.
"We've never been Jets fans in our entire lives," Brian Haugen said with a big laugh, "but we find ourselves rooting for the Jets to score touchdowns."
New York has 11 TD catches so far, with Leggett contributing to the total with the first of his NFL career in Week 4 at Jacksonville.
"Last year, I didn't get to play at all and my soon-to-be mother-in-law actually thought it would be cool to donate as much as my jersey number, so with 86, she'll donate $86 per touchdown," said a smiling Leggett, who missed last season with a knee injury. "We had a lot of touchdowns last year and she thought it was specifically just for my touchdowns, so it was kind of funny because she was the biggest donor."
Leggett and Haugen's parents met for the first time in July in Florida, where they were able to chat about life in the NFL, high school rivalries, chilly Northeast weather — and, most of all, Taylor, and their combined mission.
"He's just a great kid," Kathy Haugen said of Leggett. "He's a wonderful person and we're really honored that he wanted to do something to give back to his community and chose the foundation and our son's legacy to do it."
Added Brian Haugen: "He's a sweet soul."
They are all fiercely driven by the same goal: spreading the word that abdominal injuries are potentially life-threatening to anyone playing football. And there are ways of offering better protection.
"If you think about football, and I think this is the story that people don't get is with the chop-block rules and helmet-to-helmet contact, where are they going to hit?" Brian Haugen said. "The torso is now the target."
The Haugens have spent the last 10 years doing all they can to educate by speaking at conferences and workshops around the country and collaborating with medical experts and others in the college and NFL communities to learn more.
"The problem that needs to be fixed is, how do we avoid abdominal injuries, or at least try to better protect against them?" Brian Haugen said. "People say, 'Wow, that never happens.' No, dude, you don't get it. Kathy gets phone calls almost daily from parents across the country who see this thing that 'never happens.'
"It happens all the time."
One of the most frustrating aspects for the Haugens is that statistics on abdominal injuries and deaths from football-related hits at the high school level are largely incomplete or inaccurate. It's also a big reason the Haugens started the foundation bearing the name of their only child. They are pushing for consistent injury tracking and lobbying for better protection standards at the youth sports level.
"Logic would say that if you're going to protect the organ on top of your shoulders," Kathy Haugen said, "you would protect the organs within the middle of your body."
The Haugens support a product called the EvoShield shirt, which provides padded protection to the abdominal region and is worn by players at every level of the sport, including the NFL. They also started the Youth Equipment for Sports Safety (YESS) program to educate athletes and provide them with equipment to protect against abdominal injuries.
They have also developed a six-part "Pledge To Protect," which includes a goal of making sure that by 2028 everyone playing youth football throughout the United States is wearing abdominal protection equipment as an essential part of their sports gear.
"It's being aware that this is an injury that takes place, that there are steps as a parent you can take to make sure that your child is better protected," Kathy Haugen said. "Ask questions and ask your coaches — be engaged. You are your child's best advocate when it comes to safety."
The Haugens say they still wouldn't have prevented their son from playing the game he loved. But they stress they are educated now about the type of injuries that Taylor suffered — and they would know now how to better keep him safe.
And they, along with Leggett and their many supporters, want other families to learn how to protect their kids — and never experience the loss they did.
"I think it's always a terrible situation when parents have to bury their children," Leggett said. "But they took the terrible thing that happened to their son and they're trying to make it better for other families who have kids who are playing the sport of football, and they're trying to make it better for everybody else.
"I mean, they're extremely strong for what they do and it's good to see."