Lawsuit: River Bluff football player died after coaches punished team in summer heat

Family, friends and a football team celebrate Lewis Simpkins' life

The 14-year-old River Bluff football player who collapsed and died after practice, was laid to rest after a service at Word of God church.
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The 14-year-old River Bluff football player who collapsed and died after practice, was laid to rest after a service at Word of God church.

A 14-year-old River Bluff High School student died in August 2016 after his football coaches punished the team with a series of sprints and strenuous exercises in 95-degree heat, a lawsuit filed Monday alleges.

Lewis Simpkins, a popular teenager who had dreams of playing football at Clemson University, collapsed after the two-hour and 15-minute practice meant to penalize the team for its poor performance in a scrimmage the previous day, the wrongful death lawsuit alleges. The suit was filed by Simpkins' parents.

The suit blames the Lexington 1 School District, Lexington County, the S.C. High School League and the S.C. Board of Education for failing to adopt and enforce policies to protect student-athletes training in extreme conditions. With humidity, the heat index that day was 95 degrees.

Simpkins' family wants to raise awareness to prevent future tragedies in youth sports, their attorneys said Monday.

“Lewis was an outstanding young man of Christian faith. He was well-loved by his family, friends and teammates,” said Bobby Jones, the Greenville attorney who filed the suit. “We look forward to revealing the truth and circumstances surrounding his premature death."

Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher concluded in September 2016 that Simpkins died from a pair of pre-existing heart conditions that were exacerbated by the heat and humidity that afternoon.

The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages, to be decided by a jury.

S.C. High School League commissioner Jerome Singleton said Monday afternoon he could not comment because he hadn't seen the lawsuit.

“It’s always a tragedy whenever any of our student-athletes faces a fatality while playing our sports," he said. "My heart goes out to the family and everybody. Without having an opportunity to see it, what’s been filed, I surely couldn’t intelligently respond to it.”

Lexington 1 Superintendent Greg Little said the district can't comment on ongoing litigation.

"But we continue to keep the family of Lewis Simpkins in our thoughts and prayers," he said in a statement. "They are, after all, part of the Lexington District One family, and we will always consider them to be part of our Gator Nation.”

Lexington County officials aren't sure why the county was named in the lawsuit, spokesman Harrison Cahill said. “The school districts operate completely autonomously from the county. We don’t appoint or pay their athletics officials.”

The death of Simpkins, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle, raised questions about whether S.C. high schools were doing enough to protect student-athletes from extreme practice conditions. At the time, the S.C. High School League, for example, had not followed Georgia’s lead in requiring schools to monitor weather conditions with special devices and adjust their practices accordingly.

The High School League now requires schools to own and use those devices, among a number of new heat safety rules, Singleton said.

A report card from the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute showed South Carolina met only one of seven of the minimum "best practice" recommendations laid out by that institute, which partners with the National Football League and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. The seven guidelines — which set recommendations for heat acclimation procedures, including phasing in equipment usage and requiring specific lengths for practices and rest breaks — had been adopted by 16 states nationwide, including neighboring Georgia and North Carolina.

The lawsuit claims Simpkins and his teammates were pushed too hard, with too little oversight and no policies in place to protect them during the Aug. 10, 2016, practice.

“According to former players, it was the hardest practice they had ever had,” the lawsuit alleges. “The practice was a punishment of sorts for the poor performance in the scrimmage against Greenwood the day prior.”

At the time, a Lexington 1 spokeswoman said River Bluff’s coaches had concluded the defense needed to work more on tackling after the Greenwood scrimmage. But she said practice was no more strenuous than usual. Lexington 1 said then that River Bluff's team practiced about two hours and 15 minutes, until about 7:15 p.m. that day. The players took regular water breaks every 15 to 20 minutes, the district said.

The Simpkins’ family lawsuit paints a less favorable picture, stating Lewis’ father, Willie Simpkins, was at practice and watched his son suffer.

Simpkins collapsed in the River Bluff locker room just after the full-pads practice. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Simpkins’ parents, Willie and Shonda Simpkins, alleges toward the end of the practice, the coaches ordered the players to run “gassers.”

Lewis struggled and was “in the back behind everyone” during the sideline-to-sideline runs, the lawsuit states. Players thought practice was over, but then the team’s defensive players were ordered to do “up-downs,” a drill where players repeatedly drop to the ground in a push-up position and then bring themselves back to their feet, the lawsuit alleges.

“Lewis had trouble getting up and could barely lift his feet,” the lawsuit states. “After several of these, Lewis leaned on one knee and ultimately could not get up. Coaches yelled for the players to get up and keep going. Lewis did one more ‘up-down’ and then rolled over and again could not get up. Lewis was gasping for air.”

The lawsuit states Lewis was carried into the training room, where he initially answered several questions but continued to struggle for air. “Then his head dropped forward and he became unresponsive,” the lawsuit states.

Two trainers and a coach treated Simpkins on site until he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival, according to previous reports.

Simpkins, a musician and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was two weeks shy of his 15th birthday and just had started 10th grade at River Bluff. He had played for the junior varsity football team as a ninth-grader.

Simpkins' family has established a foundation to support Christian missions and provide sponsorships for students who share Lewis' interests and goals.

Simpkins had two doctor’s physicals in the year before his death, neither of which picked up any heart abnormalities. Neither physical included an electrocardiogram, a test that can uncover signs of dangerous and irregular heart rhythms.

River Bluff's head coach at the time, David Bennett, left the team at the end of the 2016 season. The departure was planned. The ex-Coastal Carolina University head coach had accepted a promotion in June 2016 to become Lexington 1's future athletics director. That was more than a month before Simpkins' death.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.