LOS ANGELES (CN) — Donnovan Hill, a Pop Warner football player who was paralyzed at the age of 13 after an injury sustained in a youth football game, died Wednesday.
The death came after complications from an apparently routine surgery related to Hill’s condition. He was 18.
Hill, who played offense and defense for a Lakewood, California, football program, broke his neck while attempting to tackle a ball carrier in a game at Laguna Hills High School in 2011. His mother, Cynthia Dixon, sued Pop Warner, claiming that Hill’s coaches instructed him to tackle head-first, making him susceptible to a neck injury.
“Even though Pop Warner rules and the football industry as a whole prohibit the head-first tackling that injured Donnovan, his coaches taught him the technique, insisted he use it despite his complaints, and refused to intervene and correct Donnovan when he repeatedly employed the tackling technique in practices and games,” Dixon said in the lawsuit filed in 2013.
The lawsuit claimed that Hill told his coaches during tackling drills that tackling head first was not safe and that he was instructed to stop “whining” and continue practicing. In a 2013 “Outside the Lines” investigative story, which was cited in the lawsuit, coaches gave conflicting stories about whether they encouraged players to tackle head-first, with one of the coaches defending the practice.
Hill and Pop Warner eventually reached an unprecedented seven-figure settlement, which despite being undisclosed led to other youth football safety-related lawsuits.
In March, Pop Warner reached another multimillion dollar settlement with the mother of a Wisconsin man who committed suicide and was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of dementia that presents in individuals like football players who suffer repeated blows to the head.
In that suit, Debra Pyka claimed her son contracted CTE while playing Pop Warner football in Wisconsin, beginning at the age of 10. The suit was one of the first to be filed after Boston University released a 2015 study that found former NFL players who started playing tackle football before the age of 12 developed more cognitive impairment and malfunction than their peers.
Both cases underscored an increasing concern surrounding the long-term health effects of playing football in general, and youth football in particular.
Hill’s lawsuit also demonstrated the lack of safety protocols implemented by the national Pop Warner office, as it was discovered during trial that neither of Hill’s coaches received the necessary training to be able to teach how to tackle safely and the national office did not conduct follow up to make sure its coaches were attending training classes.
Tom Farrey, who reported on Hill’s life and broke the story on ESPN, said that Cynthia Dixon also participated in a class action against Pop Warner claiming it misled parents about the safety of youth football.
The youth league’s website had claimed no one had ever been catastrophically injured playing Pop Warner football, even after Hill was paralyzed. The class action was concluded along with Dixon’s individual case as part of the settlement.
“Anyone who cares about the safety of kids playing football, or any sport, owes Donnovan Hill and his unprecedented settlement a thank you,” Farrey tweeted Thursday afternoon.
After his injury, Hill was discovered to have spinal stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the spine that made him more vulnerable to the type of injury he suffered in 2011.
Hill, whose nickname was Vizzy, made his final tweet Wednesday morning. It read: “Minor surgery today #PrayforVizzy.”
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