Nearing the halftime break in Thursday’s Jackson Hole-Star Valley boys soccer game, the 4-0 Jackson lead became the final as an on-field accident sucked the air out of the stadium.
With the Broncs pressing deep in the Braves’ third, Star Valley goalie Ethan Nelson came out of net to contest the incoming Broncs player’s shot. The two players collided, and it became immediately apparent something had gone terribly wrong.
Jackson head coach Matt Hoelscher said as his player got a shot off, Nelson’s head collided with the Jackson player’s knee. The impact fractured Nelson’s skull.
“All the kids knew it right away, they knew,” Hoelscher said. “At that point it was one of the more severe head injuries I’ve seen. I’ve seen my fair share of concussions and injuries, some were pretty bad. But that was definitely scary for all involved.”
Nelson was immediately tended to and airlifted to Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, Idaho. Nelson’s father Shawn said they returned home on Sunday to recover after doctors elected not to have Nelson undergo surgery.
“He has a skull fracture behind his right ear, three or four inches long, it’s a depressed skull fracture,” Shawn Nelson said. “They expect him to fully heal on his own.”
The elder Nelson said Ethan is still sleeping a lot, but able to wake up and talk. He remembers portions of the game before the injury, and he remembers struggling to breathe as he was being tended to on the field.
“When I got out to him on the field, I thought I was watching him die,” Shawn Nelson said. “And he didn’t think he was going to make it. To have it turn out as well as it has, with no longterm bad effects, we’re just absolutely grateful for that.”
An outpouring of support from both the Jackson and Star Valley communities came immediately. A GoFundMe fundraiser was set up for Ethan by his teammate, Cambridge Caldwell, who updated the community on Friday:
“Great news! Ethan had his ventilator removed this morning! He is awake, talking and in good spirits. So grateful for all the love and support!” Cambridge wrote.
The GoFundMe campaign quickly surpassed its initial $15,000 goal and is still accepting donations at TinyURL.com/help-the-nelsons. As of Tuesday morning the fund had raised close to $27,000.
“I’m proud of our soccer community’s response around that,” Hoelscher said. “It was one of the bigger crowds we’ve ever had, and I think [the injury] was felt by a lot of people. There was concern felt by the broader soccer community.”
For Nelson’s family the response has touched them “beyond words.”
“It’s both the Jackson and Star Valley communities coming together to wish us well and assist in any way they can,” Nelson said. “It’s just amazing how much people have tried to help us and reach out to us. … But it has definitely touched our hearts the way everyone has responded.”
Nelson said doctors expect it to take four to six weeks for Ethan’s skull fracture to heal, with potential future surgeries for an ear complication sustained during the collision. But there are no neurological issues, his dad said, and the vision problems he is still having are “improving every day.”
Nelson is a senior, which means he will not have the opportunity to return to the pitch after he heals. Not at the high school level anyway, and for Shawn Nelson that is somewhat of a relief.
“These accidents can happen, we’re just fortunate,” he said. “He was good, he enjoyed it, and we’re glad he had the opportunity to play. He’s going to miss out on the regional tournament, but he’s cool with that. He said he’s glad they’re still going to play, but just be careful.”
— Kayla Renie and Evan Robinson-Johnson contributed to this report.