Zachary Tran was at practice last Wednesday with his suburban Chicago soccer team when his mother, Michelle, saw him hanging on the crossbar of the large, metal goal. She told her six-year-old son to stop and then walked away. When she returned moments later, she found him sprawled on the grassy field surrounded by a group of people.
The goal had toppled over on the Vernon Hills, Ill. first grader, striking the 48-pound child on the head. Zachary was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead an hour later, according to Lake County Coroner James Wipper.
Vernon Hills police spokesman Kim Christenson calls the death "a tragic accident."
But it's not an isolated one. At least 26 people have been killed and 49 others injured since 1979 by tipping goals, most of which were homemade versions and not professionally manufactured, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Though the number killed in such incidents represents a tiny fraction of the millions of kids who play soccer, the safety organization was concerned enough about the problem of unsecured goals to issue a booklet on soccer goal guidelines eight years ago and to urge soccer groups to make sure that all portable soccer goals, except those which are very light-weight, be anchored or otherwise secured to the ground. Movable goals can weigh up to 500 pounds.
But not all soccer groups have heeded the commission's advice. In June 2002, an Andover, Mass. kindergartener was playing when a gust of wind blew over a nearby unsecured goal, smashing her face. The six-year-old needed hundreds of stitches and plates in her cheekbones to reconstruct her face. And in October 2002, a 17-year-old high school freshman near Baltimore was killed when a steel-framed soccer goal he was helping to move fell on his head.
Incidents like those haunt Kerry Smith, a Texas woman who started a Web site to try to educate others about the danger of homemade and unsecured soccer goals after her 10-year-old son, Daniel, died in a park accident in 1993. The youngster had gotten his foot entangled in a soccer net and as he struggled to get free, the goal flipped forward, smashing into his forehead.
"Soccer equipment is hard to police to see if it is up to standards," says Smith, who is lobbying for the elimination of homemade goals. In the meantime, she urges parents and coaches to make sure goals are anchored properly. "If it moves just a little bit, it's unsafe. A coach who has players' safety in mind is going to inspect the equipment," she says.
After Zachary's death last week in Chicago, the Vernon Hills Park District re-inspected all its soccer goals and found them to be in safe condition. But authorities say others need to be just as vigilant, ensuring that goals are secured to the ground with either anchors, pegs, stakes or sandbags.
"These are the kinds of things you have to go at time and again," says Ann Brown, head of Safer America for Everyone, a children's safety organization, and former head of the CPSC. "If kids are going to be playing around these things, they absolutely must be anchored." Until they are, these goals may pose a far greater threat to players than any opponent on the soccer field.