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Paralyzed Boy Blames Pop Warner Coaches

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A 15-year-old boy was left quadriplegic because Pop Warner coaches insisted players tackle head-first during games and practices, his mother claims in court.

Donnovan Hill's mother, Crystal Dixon of Los Alamitos, sued Pop Warner Little Scholars, a nonprofit that runs football and dance programs for 5- to 15-year-olds; the Orange Empire Conference; Lakewood Pop Warner; five coaches, and two officials of the defendant organizations, in Superior Court.

Hill was 13 and enrolled at Pop Warner in Lakewood, in suburban Los Angeles, when he was paralyzed by tackling a player head-first at a youth league football game at Laguna Hills High School, according to the lawsuit.

"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," the complaint states.

During Hill's time on the Lakewood Black Lancers Midget football team, Pop Warner head coach-defendant Salvador Hernandez encouraged him to use the tackling technique, Hill's mother claims.

"Leading with your head while tackling, often referred to as 'face tackling,' occurs when a defensive player initiates contact with a ball carrier with the front if his helmet," the lawsuit states. "This practice, along with 'spearing' - launching at an opponent with the top of the helmet - are both widely prohibited in football at all levels."

Hill's mom claims that Pop Warner coaches said head-first tackling was "'tough'" and never read kids the riot act for tackling that way. When Hill voiced his concern, Hernandez dressed him down for "'whining'" and ordered him to keep practicing, the mother says.

Hill injured his neck in the drills, and this was confirmed by another player and a coach in a segment about Hill on the ESPN television show "Outside the Lines," according to the lawsuit.

In the same segment, still online, Hernandez denies he encouraged Hill to lead with his head. "That's football 101," Hernandez says at about 5 minutes 20 seconds into the clip . "Keep your head up."

But Dixon, the mother, claims coaches do not take online coaching courses or review the organization's own rules. She claims Pop Warner never bothered to check whether coaches taught techniques to avoid injuries.

During the championship game at Laguna Hills on Nov. 6, 2011, Hill complained he was fatigued, but his coaches urged him to play through the second half, his mother says.

She was watching from the stands when her son suffered "severe and permanent injuries" when he tried to stop an opponent from reaching the end zone by leading the tackle with his head.

"Upon contact with the opposing player, Donnovan immediately went limp and dropped to the field, unmoving. Donnovan told those gathered around him that he could not feel his legs," his mother says in the lawsuit.

Dixon says her son's spinal cord injuries left him with "minimal use of his arms, and no independent movement from the nipple-level down."

Confined to a bed and wheelchair in a small apartment with his single mother, Hill suffers from pressure sores and has to use a colostomy bag and catheter, his mom says.

The mother and son seek punitive damages for negligence, respondeat superior, negligent training, supervision and retention, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

They are represented by Elaine Byszewski with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro of Pasadena.

Pop Warner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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