Illinois high schools will have to insure athletes for major injuries suffered on the playing field under a bill signed by Gov. Pat Quinn at a Sunday ceremony.
The new law requires coverage for young people seriously hurt in school-sponsored sports for at least five years or $3 million in benefits, whichever comes first. Officials estimate the cost at less than $5 per athlete, per season. Schools that already require student-athletes to provide their own private insurance are exempt.
The legislation was inspired by Rasul Clark, a talented young running back who was paralyzed in 2000 and whose family ran out of insurance money before his death last year. Quinn, flanked by Clark’s mother and several lawmakers, signed the bill next to the Eisenhower High School football field where the athlete everyone called Rocky used to play in south suburban Blue Island.
“He understood that it was his mission on Earth to let us know that we need to make some changes in our laws,” Quinn said before signing the bill. “They’re our sons and our daughters — That’s why today is a very special day.”
One by one, speakers paid tribute to Clark, a man who they said remained a selfless advocate for others after his injury. State Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former NFL player who sponsored the bill, said it was important to provide a safety net for young people who put their bodies at risk to represent their school. Harris, a Flossmoor Democrat, played collegiately at Northwestern University before a seven-year pro career that included stints in Oakland, Kansas City and Minnesota. His bill passed both chambers with healthy majorities.
“This hits home,” the linebacker-turned-lawmaker said. “Rocky Clark’s story could have been me. I walked down this trail. I played on this field.”
At least 100 people turned out for the signing, including Andre Williams, who coached Clark at Eisenhower. He recalled the always-positive young man he met as an eighth-grader and who blossomed into a promising player before his injury.
“This law is huge,” said Williams, who now coaches in Springfield. “The school benefits, but what happens if the kid gets hurt? That (player) puts his life on the line and pride on the line for that school.”
Clark is far from alone in suffering a life-altering injury on the playing field. From 1977 to 2006, a University of North Carolina study found, 222 junior high and high school football players suffered catastrophic spinal cord injuries.
By mandating insurance coverage, he said, parents and athletes won’t have to worry about making ends meet if tragedy strikes and coaches can feel better about asking parents to sign waiver forms.
Annette Clark, the player’s mother, would like to see similar laws enacted across the country. Speaking from the podium after embracing Quinn, she said it was heartening to know that other Illinois families won’t have to worry about whether their athletes are covered. Her son, she said, would be proud.
“With this, I know Rocky’s smiling,” Annette Clark said. “He’s running now. He’s running now. There’s no more pain. There’s no more sorrow.”