It was a fun and competitive weekend for a young group of all-stars as they visited Texas and represented Memphis, Tennessee, in a weekend football tournament.
The players, some venturing outside of Memphis for the first time in their lives, built bonds on the field and off, says one of their coaches, Matt King.
“They had a blast,” said King.
But the glow of a successful tournament turned to tragedy when the charter bus carrying players and coaches rolled off an interstate and overturned in Arkansas in the early morning darkness Monday. Authorities are investigating what caused the crash, which occurred in clear, dry weather.
The elementary school-aged children from 10 Orange Mound Youth Association football teams were returning home after playing in the Dallas area.
A coroner confirmed that 9-year-old Kameron Johnson was killed. Forty-five other players and coaches were injured in the crash along Interstate 30 near Benton in central Arkansas. Most have been released from Arkansas hospitals.
King coaches the Tipton County Crush, which is part of the association. He had two players, ages 11 and 12, on the bus. The 12-year-old suffered a cracked skull and stitches on his face and head, while the 11-year-old received cuts and bruises.
King had already driven his own car home. Hearing about the crash was “the worst feeling ever,” he said.
“The league was just trying to take those kids out of town and do something different,” said the 31-year-old heavy machinery operator. “A lot of those kids will probably never be able to do something like that again.”
The bus driver, 65-year-old Eula Jarrett of Tennessee, told state police that she lost control. The heavily damaged bus came to a stop after tumbling down a steep embankment next to the crook of a sharp bend on an offramp around 2:40 a.m., police said.
One of the adults on the bus, Damous Hailey, told The Commercial Appeal newspaper that the bus swerved and then flipped “about 15 or 20 times” before landing on its side.
The bus was operated by Scott Shuttle Service, based in Somerville, Tennessee. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that the company had a “satisfactory” safety rating.
Records also showed one of the company’s buses was involved in a crash in wet surface conditions in Jackson, Tennessee, in November 2017. No injuries or deaths were reported. The 59-year-old driver did not receive a citation, the federal records showed.
The company also was fined in May for knowingly allowing an employee to operate a commercial motor vehicle without the proper licensing. Scott Shuttle Service officials did not return a call seeking comment on the crash.
Officials from two school districts in Memphis said students from several of their schools were hurt. Aspire Public Schools, which runs charter schools in Memphis, said the child who died had attended one of its schools.
The crash has shaken the low-income community of Orange Mound, a historic, mostly African-American neighborhood that takes pride in its youth athletic programs. Shelby County Schools is helping to gather money for the children and their families. Funds also are being raised online.
“For some of the inner-city kids, that’s all they really have, they live to play football,” said King. “They don’t have Xbox Ones. They go outside to play football.”
King said he doesn’t think the “freak accident” will discourage the kids from playing football or participating on traveling teams.
“Those kids were having a blast out of town,” King said. “They were all smiles. It was awesome. It just sucks it had to happen at the end of it.”
(Associated Press writers Jill Bleed and Hannah Grabenstein in Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York, contributed to this report.)
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