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Family of Paralyzed Player Sues Pop Warner Over Tackling Technique

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USA TODAY
November 8, 2013 Friday
First EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 5C
657 words
Lawsuit alleges unsafe tackling led to paralysis;
Player's family says Pop Warner, coaches at fault
Gary Mihoces, @ByGaryMihoces, USA TODAY Sports

The family of a Pop Warner youth football player, paralyzed while making a tackle during a 2011 game, filed suit in California this week alleging he was taught an unsafe headfirst technique by his coaches and that the Pop Warner organization and others failed to ensure that coaches complied with rules banning such tackling.

Donnovan Hill was 13 at the time of his injury as a member of the Lakewood (Calif.) Black Lancers, a Pop Warner group about 20 miles south of Los Angeles.

"As Donnovan approached contact with his opponent, he dropped his head down, kept his arms at his side and initiated the tackle head first," the lawsuit filed in Superior Court of California state. "Upon contact with the opposing player, Donnovan immediately went limp and dropped to the field unmoving."

The suit said Hill suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury and has minimal use of his arms and no movement from the chest down because he tackled the way he was taught -- head first.

"It's an unbelievable story about how not to run a football program," says Rob Carey, a Phoenix attorney who is representing the plaintiffs. "And the really sad part is when you look at Pop Warner, they market themselves as safety, safety, safety."

Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, declined to comment, saying that was the organization's stance on all litigation.

In August, Pop Warner announced it was joining the Heads Up Football program being rolled out nationally this year by USA Football, a national youth football governing body that receives NFL funding. Pop Warner said the plan is for all of its 1,300 associations to go through Heads Up certification before next season.

In Heads Up, players are taught to hit with their heads to the side.

Donnovan was injured in a game Nov. 6, 2011, in Laguna Hills, Calif., about 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

"Their coach wasn't certified. He didn't follow their own procedures and get certified on safety at regular intervals," Carey said of Salvador Hernandez, head coach of Hill's team in 2011. "They (Pop Warner) didn't supervise him to make sure he is teaching proper tackling techniques. And the consequence is ... Donnovan Hill is now quadriplegic."

The lawsuit says the 2011 Pop Warner rules prohibited "face tackling" or "spearing" techniques and that any coaches teaching such techniques should be dismissed after a hearing.

"It's not so much about not being certified," Carey said. "That can happen. ... But what should never happen is you've got an array of coaches, assistant coaches, on the sideline, multiple times, watching Donnovan 'face tackle,' and no one stops it. That should never happen. ... They should ensure the rules are being followed."

The suit says game videos show Hill consistently tackled head first throughout the 2011 season. It alleges the coaches observed this repeatedly in practices and games without correcting or reprimanding it. During one drill, the suit alleges, Hill said he was concerned he might get hurt tackling head first -- and a coach "chastised" him for "whining."

Pop Warner, the Langhorne, Pa.-based group that had about 275,000 youngsters in its football program nationally last season, is a defendant, as is the Orange Empire Conference; Lakewood Pop Warner; Hernandez; four assistant coaches; Roberto Carlos Gonzales, president and athletics director of Lakewood Pop Warner in 2011, and Robert Espinosa, an assistant commissioner of Orange Empire in 2011. The suit also includes the spouses as defendants.

It says Donnovan, 15, doesn't have transportation to accommodate his injuries and his life expectancy is diminished. Donnovan and his mom, Crystal Dixon, seek unspecified damages, including compensation to care for him for the rest of his life.

"I'm sure Donnovan himself doesn't really relish the idea of suing his coaches," Carey said. "But it becomes an issue of insurance and compensability and making sure that Donnovan is going to be taken care of."

November 8, 2013

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