In the sad aftermath of a 13-year-old boy being left paralyzed by a freak hit on a Laguna Hills Pop Warner football field in November 2011, coaches, teammates and parents gave prayers, lit candles and shared hospital/physical therapy progress reports for the stricken Donnovan Hill.
On Wednesday, Hill's mother sued the Pop Warner organization, league representatives and the Lakewood Lancers then-coaches on behalf of now 15-year-old Donnovan, who is confined to a wheelchair and will never realize his dream of playing college ball.
Crystal Dixon, who lives with Donnovan in her sister's Los Alamitos apartment, is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
As as ESPN Outside the Lines special reported last year, Dixon and Hill have been estranged from his Lakewood Lancers coaches since the mother and son consulted a lawyer about their legal options.
Hill was a two-way star for the Lancers, who went up against Saddleback Valley's Pop Warner team in the Nov. 6, 2011, Midget Orange Bowl championship game at Laguna Hills High School. Hill would score the first touchdown of the game on a 40-yard running play, but he later led with his head on defense to make a successful goal-line stand tackle on a Saddleback Valley running back.
The back sprang right up after the helmet-to-helmet contact, but Hill remained motionless on the field as his teammates called the coaches over from the sidelines. He was admitted to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, where doctors initially said his spine was not damaged and a fourth vertebrae was successfully replaced in surgery.
“At this time, WE all must come together and pull for young Donnovan to make it through this difficult incident that has blind-sided him and his entire family,” wrote Lucio Arellano, the founder and creator of the Lancers' LakewoodFootball.com site, at the time. “… [W]e all are hoping for Donnovan.”
According to the legal complaint (via City News Service), Hill was fatigued when coaches put him in the game to replace a defensive player and hurt when he led with his head to make the touchdown-saving tackle.
He now has minimal use of his arms and no independent movement from his upper chest down, states the suit, while Dixon suffered emotional distress from witnessing the tragedy.
She broke down and cried during her ESPN interview, as did Sal Hernandez, who was the Lancers' head coach at the time. He says on camera of Hill's leading-with-his-head-down-tackling style, “He came in a lot like that.”
Tacklers are prohibited under Pop Warner rules from tackling with their heads down–also known as spearing–or face first to butt opponents with their foreheads. Instead, a player is supposed to be instructed to approach the opponent with head up and then slide the head to the side of the player before making contact.
Hill says in the ESPN report that Hernandez and his other coaches taught him the spearing method–and that the player complained, “This is not the right way to hit.” Hernandez denied that to the reporter, saying, “That's football 101.”
The former player also recalled in the report complaining about the prohibited face-first method to Hernandez, who was alleged to reply, “Stop whining.” The coach also denied that ever happened, but one of Hill's teammates and an assistant coach remembered the incident for ESPN.
That report noted Hill's medical bills at the time topped $2 million and that his mother's insurance covered about 80 percent of that, leaving her on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dixon wondered not only how she will come up with that, but who will pay for Hill's care once he becomes an adult.
The saddest moment in the piece came near the end, when Hernandez broke down after being informed of something else Hill said of him on camera.
He still loves his coach.