EDITOR’S NOTE — When Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field during an NFL game, it brought to mind a night in 1980 when Fair Park’s Troy Monsanto made a tackle in a game and never got up. What follows is the original story from the Shreveport Journal that was published in October, 1990 — 10 years after that dreadful night. And now more than 40 years later, what happened to Troy Monsanto is just as important as it has ever been.
By HARRIET PROTHRO and JOHN JAMES MARSHALL
If not for one night in October, Troy Monsanto would have had an otherwise undistinguished high school football career. Then he would have gone on to something else. These days he would be 27 years old. Like so many others he’d be just another name in the phone book who remembered his high school football days fondly.
Instead we pause to take this time to remember all the things that Monsanto never was able to become.
If not for one otherwise-meaningless play in an otherwise-meaningless game, this story would be unnecessary. The memories of that night would be that Woodlawn beat Fair Park 20-6.
That’s all. In reality, no one remembers the score.
It was 10 years ago this week when Troy Monsanto dove to finish off a tackle on Woodlawn’s Anthony Cheeks who had already been hit and was on his way down anyway.
But Monsanto was an eager young defensive back anxious to impress the coaches no matter how much time was left. After all, Checks was a 205-pound running back who was one of the top players in the city. Monsanto was a 147-pound player who was just happy to get some playing time.
If not for 33 seconds …
Thirty-three seconds. That’s all the time that remained when Monsanto tackled Cheeks. Count off 33 seconds. It’s so quick, so terribly quick. So you think to yourself: One less time out … one less incompletion … one less run out of bounds That would have taken up the 33 seconds with no time to spare. The game would have been over. Cheeks would have never had to carry the ball. Monsanto would have never had to finish off the tackle. Players and coaches would have come across the field to shake hands. Both teams would have looked toward the next week, the final game of the regular season. But it didn’t happen that way.
Instead 33 seconds stayed on the scoreboard at State Fair Stadium and never came off.
It was at that moment that Troy Monsanto, for all the wrong reasons, became so much more than just another high school football player. All for something that was unnecessary. Sadly it was a tackle that didn’t even need to be made. Yet it is one that will never be forgotten.
Coaching is what Bob Burton liked to do and there wasn’t much that could keep him from doing just that.
In his years of coaching he had seen the usual injuries — broken arms and legs, sprained ankles and separated shoulders. When you’re dealing with a contact sport those kinds of things are —unfortunately — part of the game.
Losing a game, a district championship, a playoff game. Those are the kinds of things you eventually get over. Those can be classified under the usual disappointments of life. They are not matters of life and death.
Life and death. Those words, taken separately or together, are not what football is all about. But Bob Burton learned differently and his lesson began early in life.
It could be considered hard to believe that a man like Burton — with his immense size and immense determination — would have to compete with anyone for a spot on the football field. But at Grambling State University there was another player who wanted the same position Burton was trying to get.
Burton got the position, but not the way he wanted. During practice, the other player had a heat stroke, later went into a coma, and died.
It’s the kind of tragedy you don’t get over — the kind that stays with you the rest of your life. The memory of that tragedy stayed with Burton who was hoping — and almost certain — he wouldn’t have to go through anything like it again. But it all came back to him on Oct. 30, 1980.
As the head coach of the Fair Park High School football team, Burton stood on the sidelines at State Fair Stadium on this chilly night watching the closing seconds of his team’s 20-6 loss to Woodlawn — when that horrible memory raced through his head again.
Over on the other side of the field lay Troy Monsanto, face down on the field. It wasn’t until Burton and the other Fair Park coaches made their way to the Woodlawn side of the field and knelt over Monsanto that they knew just how serious the injury was.
At first Monsanto could move his right side but not the left. But by the time the ambulance arrived, there was no feeling at all. None.
As Burton describes the play — 10 years later — it is as though he has gone back in time to that unusually cold night. Getting out of his chair in the coaches office at Fair Park, Burton bends his knees and puts his head down as he goes through just what happened when Monsanto hit Anthony Cheeks. The fact that a decade has passed has not diminished the memory of the exact turn of events.
Burton and his staff — as well as the crowd and other players — just stood there waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Teammates stood helplessly by and cried uncontrollably. A half hour passed before Monsanto was taken to Willis-Knighton Medical Center, where he underwent five hours of surgery for a broken neck.
The Fair Park coach kept a vigil at the hospital — along with Monsanto’s family and friends. They paced the hospital halls, sat in silence and tried to comfort one another. And no matter how bad things looked for the 17-year-old, the group of loved ones never lost hope.
Burton was at Monsanto’s bedside when the high school senior regained consciousness and talked to his family before going into surgery. “Even at that time we thought he was going to survive,” says Burton. “He fought and we fought with him.”
Troy Monsanto (41) in a game earlier in the 1980 season.
When the fog came rolling in, it only added to the feeling of that peculiarly unsettling October night. There were no sounds on the streets. The spooky nature of the night seemed appropriate since it was the night before Halloween.
But something was wrong and Aundra Bennett could sense it from the moment he walked into State Fair Stadium.
“I just felt like something was going to happen,” Bennett recalls. “Nothing like that though. I thought it would be more something like my girlfriend was gonna drop me that night.”
If Bennett’s girlfriend had broken up with him that night, the first person to know would have been Troy Monsanto. The two boys had grown up right around the corner from each other and had attended the same school since the fourth grade. Nothing happened to one of them without the other one sharing in it.
That’s the way it had been since they became best friends at age 7. There were the endless hours spent in the middle of the street throwing the football back and forth. One was a wide receiver; the other lined up countless times against him in practice as a defensive back. Troy lived on Markham Street. Aundra lived on Kennedy. Practically brothers.
Monsanto never thought of himself as an exceptional athlete — that’s what he thought of his best friend. Aundra would be the star receiver while Troy just tried to find his place on the team. But there was something about Monsanto that made up for his lack of natural ability. “He was very coachable,” says Burton. “What he lacked in ability he made up for in hustle and
Part of that hustle and desire was a result of the time the two boys spent together throwing the football and talking about what the future would bring. Whatever it would bring, the two would be side-by-side. That’s the way it was in grade school, junior high, high school and in every aspect of their lives. They shared the good times and the bad, the nights that they both had dates and the nights that they spent alone — together.
Bennett was at Monsanto’s side on that Halloween eve in 1980. It didn’t take Bennett long to know that something was wrong, and as soon as he sensed that, he was all the way across the field at State Fair Stadium.
As he knelt down to check on Monsanto, Bennett heard his best friend struggle to tell him something.
“Aundra,” he said. “I can’t move nothing.”
Up until that point Bennett thought — and was hoping — that Monsanto had just jammed his neck. That seemed likely since the defensive back had had shoulder problems — serious enough to make him miss the previous three games.
That’s when Bennett knew something was seriously wrong. So he stayed by his friend for what seemed to be an eternity while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. That something-isn’t-right feeling that Bennett had as he walked into the stadium that night wasn’t just his imagination.
For the first time in his four years of varsity football, he noticed that there wasn’t an ambulance at the game.
While he waited, Aundra held his friend’s hand and — for the first time — got really scared. “It was a dreary night any way, but his hand was shivery cold,” says Bennett. “It was a different feeling from the regular human blood flow to the hand.”
When the ambulance finally arrived — that forever-long half hour later — the situation had grown more serious. As Bennett stood feeling helpless, his closest friend was lifted onto a stretcher taken off the field and rushed to Willis-Knighton Medical Center.
Early on Halloween morning, Monsanto underwent surgery but was conscious and spoke to his family and coach before the operation. And just as always, Bennett was by his side.
When Douglas Jackson got a phone call at his job at Beaird-Poulan that night, he was told that his stepson had been injured in a football game. His first thought was that it was a broken arm. Maybe an ankle.
He took off work early — he still had an hour to go on his shift — and went to the hospital. He had absolutely no idea what was awaiting him as he walked into the examination room and some doctor who he had never seen before pointed to an X-ray that meant zero to Jackson. Then he told Jackson that his 17-year-old stepson had a cervical spine fracture.
A broken neck.
And then Douglas Jackson, a man not usually given to such things, broke down and cried.
With legs so weak he could hardly walk, Jackson was taken to Monsanto’s room.
Troy was in tremendous pain and Jackson didn’t exactly know what to say except, “Troy you’re gonna make it, man.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Troy said. “I’m gonna make it.”
And then Douglas Jackson’s stepson was taken away into an operating room. In the pre-dawn hours that Friday morning, surgeons performed a five-hour operation.
When he came out of recovery, Monsanto was conscious. Friday turned into Saturday. Saturday turned into Sunday. Douglas Jackson stopped counting the hours since he had last slept. Now it had become days.
For 4 1/2 days, Aundra Bennett sat In the quiet halls of the hospital trying to keep a positive attitude about the tragedy that had taken place before his eyes. He tried to eat but there wasn’t much of that. Trying to get some sleep didn’t prove any easier.
Monsanto was conscious during his first two days at the hospital and could have family members visit him. And when the family members were admitted into the room, Aundra was right with them.
“His mother told the doctors I was his brother so I could go in there,” says Bennett.
During their brief talks, Bennett would try to raise his friend’s spirits. He stood over the hospital bed looking at Monsanto, who was having a hard time dealing with what had happened — and what might happen.
“I told him I’d be there for him,” says Bennett. “It didn’t matter if he was going to be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. But he didn’t want to live like that.”
The pain was more than Monsanto’s mother could bear. Gloria Jackson, who had recently separated from Douglas Jackson, was admitted to the hospital for high blood pressure and a heart condition.
As she lay in her bed, all Gloria Jackson could do was think of her children. None of them slept, none of them ate. Some waited at home for any shred of news.
Troy never knew that his mother was five floors above him. Gloria Jackson was admitted to the hospital on Sunday afternoon. About 6 p.m., her 17-year-old son slipped into a coma.
As his family and Fair Park students and coaches spent every moment thinking about him, Troy Monsanto got nothing but worse. His neurological condition quickly deteriorated. He had trouble breathing and was placed on a respirator.
There was just no hope. When all of this had started, the concern was over a concussion. Then it was over a broken bone. Then a neck. Paralysis. But now it was a life that was on the line. The news kept getting worse and worse and there was nowhere to turn.
He’s just a kid. Just a 17-year-old kid playin’; football Why? Why? What has he ever done?
There were no answers.
Fair Park students held a benefit dinner. The team had to play the final game but no one really cared. A teammate was dying in the hospital and they were supposed to play a game? The only reason they did was because they knew Troy would want them to. But the Indians lost the game 8-0 that Friday night and Bob Burton left immediately to return to the hospital.
He arrived to find that there was no good news. Only bad.
Early on the morning of Nov 8, 1980, a Saturday, the family of Troy Monsanto was called into his room where he lay in a comatose condition breathing only with the aid of a respirator.
And then he was gone.
A few hours later Fair Park students gathered to begin work on a car wash and barbecue that was scheduled to help with the medical expenses. Word soon reached that their classmate and teammate had died. They all paused, cried for a few minutes, and then went back to work on what they had planned.
Troy would have wanted them to.
Coach Bob Burton (left) was among those who served as a pallbearer.
Doug Robinson can’t count the number of times he had to pull Anthony Cheeks aside and have a talk. The Woodlawn running back took it hard. Very hard. “Awful,” said Robinson, a Woodlawn coach at the time.
That’s the part of stories such as this that often isn’t heard. During the events that followed the Monsanto tackle, Cheeks felt a tremendous guilt over what had happened. “It was far from his fault,” Robinson said. “But he had a hard time understanding that.”
When the game was over, Cheeks sat alone In front of his locker refusing to get on the bus until he could resolve something in his mind over what had just happened. But he couldn’t.
“I was doing my job and he was there and I just hope God is watching over him," Cheeks said as he sat there. “I went over and looked at him. He looked like he was in definite pain. It really hurt me; hurt me in my heart.”
Thoughts kept going through Cheeks’ mind: If had just cut back a different way … If I could have run a little faster … If I could have avoided him …
The sound of the hit — that sickening thud — just kept ringing and ringing and ringing through the mind of Cheeks.
He kept hoping that in a minute, an hour, a day, a week, maybe a month, a kid his own age that he had never even met before might just get up and walk away.
For a week, every time Cheeks would read the latest about Monsanto’s condition, he would see his own name mentioned “… collided with Woodlawn running back Anthony Cheeks …” He couldn’t escape. It’s not your fault Anthony, it’s not your fault, he kept being told.
Then why in God’s name, Anthony wanted to know, was that guy In a coma? And why wouldn’t the feelings of guilt go away?
Anthony Cheeks had an outstanding career as a running back at Woodlawn. The next year, 1981, he set the school rushing record. He was All-City. Ten years later and he's the second-leading career rusher in school history.
But he never got over that one hit that was made on him and over which he had no control.
Fred Taylor had some of those same thoughts when he watched the same thing happen to Willie Burns last year.
At Northwood Stadium on Sept. 14, 1989, Taylor ran a post pattern across the middle of the field waiting for Green Oaks quarterback Corell Collins to throw him the ball. And when the ball arrived, so did Burns, the Southwood free safety.
“It was a super hit as far as having good form,” Southwood Head Coach Ron Worthen said after the game. “Willie had his head up. I think a lot of it had to do with both kids moving at full speed.”
Like Monsanto, Burns lay on the field motionless as the stretcher was brought onto the field The Southwood player fractured vertebrae in his neck and remains paralyzed.
“I didn’t see him,” Taylor recalls of Burns on the play. “When I did get up and shook the cobwebs off, I saw him still on the ground. I thought he was out of breath. When I saw the ambulance on the field, I knew something was wrong.”
A few days went by before what had happened hit Taylor. And when he began to accept it, the thought went through his head, “Thank God it wasn’t me.”
But there were other thoughts that went through the teenager's head. Thoughts of quitting football, just giving it up. If there was anyone to blame, it was Taylor. At least that's what he thought.
And that attitude is very common in a tragedy such as these, according to Dr. Paul Ware, a Shreveport psychiatrist.
“A lot of times it can be harder, depending on how the mechanism works for the person who hit the other,” says Ware. “The process must include forgiving himself and eliminating the sense of blame. It’s a forgiving process and it’s tough. But it can be done.”
Anger, denial and blame are the first steps in the difficult process of dealing with tragedy. Unfortunately, some people never get past these steps. They will spend the rest of their lives focusing their anger and blame on someone else as a way of avoiding the real pain of a loss.
In a normal process, those steps will be followed by sadness, forgiveness and then a new equilibrium. They will go on with life. But the process can take a long time.
For Taylor, that meant weeks of playing the scene over and over in his mind. And there were some nights when he couldn’t sleep. But through talking with friends, he realized it wasn’t his fault.
But that doesn’t mean the memories aren’t still there.
Certain things can trigger the memory of that night for Taylor. He can see a newspaper clipping or watch a football game and see a hard hit and it comes back.
“Anniversaries and shared events are the hardest times to continue that natural process of grieving for a period of time,” says Ware. “One of the shifts in the process is that you start to remember the positive events you shared with that person.”
That is what Burton is thinking about when he remembers the life of Troy Monsanto. A boy who would have made a great contribution to society. The clean-cut kid who was determined to earn a starting spot on his high school football team, despite the fact that there were those who had more natural ability. A young kid who loved his family dearly.
“It’s after those kinds of tragedies that you wonder why,” says Burton. “It seems like the ones with so much to give are the ones taken away. That’s the way it happens. The good have to suffer for the bad.’
Aundra Bennett knows just how much Troy Monsanto had to offer. And the memories are still there. The memories are so close that their days together seem like yesterday. Ten years later and Bennett passes in front of Fair Park High School and they’re there. The memories of the years they spent together.
“Yeah, I think about it all the time,” says Bennett.
And there is this horrible irony: Taylor, the man who was hit by Willie Burns last year, wore the same number (41) as Troy Monsanto.
“You couldn’t forget about it,” says Doug Robinson, “even if you wanted to.”
But for those who were there, it’s a memory they have had to cope with and then try to move on. “Something like that…,” Robinson says, still trying to find the right words after 10 years. ‘It’s just awful.”
You can forget games, even seasons, that were played in the last 10 years. But that play — that sound — is still around.
“Every time somebody gets a hard hit and stays down for a second,” says Robinson who is currently an assistant coach at Captain Shreve, “it comes back to me.”
For Bennett and Burton, it’s a little different. Troy Monsanto wasn’t just No. 41 on the Fair Park team. He was a friend; he was a member of the team who was about to finish his high school career.
After coaching football for 26 years — the last nine at Fair Park — Burton got out of the profession. He stepped down as the Indians’ head coach eight years after Monsanto’s death, but that does’t mean the memory was not still with him. As clear as it was in 1980.
“That’s one thing that perpetuated my getting out of coaching,” says Burton. “That was a sad day, a sad time in my life. I will live with that the rest of my life. It is something you live with, something that never leaves you.”
And it’s there, closer than ever each time Burton sees an athlete go down. If a football player goes down and lies there a little longer than usual, Burton is out there very quickly. “It’s something like a nightmare,” he says.
It’s a nightmare that Aundra Bennett thinks about all the time. And even though he remembers the accident like it was yesterday, Bennett tries to dwell on the good times he shared with his best friend.
Saying goodbye to his closest friend was hard enough for Bennett, but the hardest thing he had to do was go back out onto the football field the week after the accident. He was trying to concentrate on playing against Booker T Washington and all he could think about was his best friend lying in the hospital in a coma. One of the last things Monsanto said to Bennett was, “Man, I want to play Booker T. Beat ’em for me ’Dre.”
And he tried, he wanted to do so much. He was trying to win the game for Troy but it wasn’t be. Aundra can’t forget that.
But he can’t forget the good times either. Like the endless hours he spent with his friend playing football in the middle of the street. Bennett still sees the Jackson family. He’ll throw the football with Troy’s brothers and they will talk about their loss.
“We’ll talk about it out there,” says Bennett “We’ll just be out playing catch and it’ll come up. And we’ll say ‘It ain’t the same without ole Troy.’ We end up just putting the ball up.”
The memories. Driving by the school and remembering his friend. Seeing a Grand Prix drive by and thinking about Troy — and all the time they spent together in that car.
The memories are there. And they should be. He should not be forgotten, and that’s why Burton wanted to make sure that one thing happened before he stepped down at Fair Park. He wanted a Troy Monsanto award to be given annually to a football player who exemplifies the same dedication and commitment for which the youngster was known.
But there are other reminders, like the No. 41 jersey that was put into the trophy case at Fair Park High School. The one that was placed in the case with the other retired Indian jerseys. But if you go to look, you can’t find it.
Somebody stole it.