Pop Warner Sued by Mom of Player Left Paralyzed After Making Tackle in Laguna Hills

Categories: Court, Sports

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.

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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.

Donnovan Hill tells a reporter who told him to lead with his head when tackling.

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.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson

Coaches have an obligation to protect those children in their care and that includes teaching them how to do things correctly.

Veronica Malvaez Isaac
Veronica Malvaez Isaac

It really is sad that he is paralyzed. However, aren't you made aware or ARE ACTUALLY AWARE of the dangers of tackle football? My younger brother started playing at 8 yrs old and both my parents were FULL AWARE of what could happen. My brother ALWAYS had bruises on his arms and legs but he LOVED IT. We even had a few scares when he had a hard tackle and took a while to get up but he did. And he still played and my parents STILL ALLOWED him to play. I'm sorry, but this is NO REASON to sue.

John Hald
John Hald

Sad that the kids paralyzed but it's even worse that the family is using it as an excuse to get a payday they know the dangers of football

Jenn Garcia
Jenn Garcia

I've seen this all to often in rehabilitation hospitals and personally in our family. No one I ever knew sued. It's just a horrible accident out of chances we take, choices we make. It could even happen falling off a ladder, car accident, diving, etc..

Chuck Brood
Chuck Brood

This is such BS, they signed up for it. They knew the risks of playing football! And now he can't play college ball? Who said he would have been good enough to play college ball? I am so sick of people looking for a paycheck! GET A LIFE!

Josh Peconic
Josh Peconic

Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.


I would never put my son in Pop Warner again.  Besides the physical harm, I don't like the ethics Pop Warner instills in our youth.  Teaching Pop Warner kids to spear when tackling is par for the course, as far as I've witnessed.  I am fortunate to only have ONE season of my son playing Saddleback Valley Pop Warner football last year.  After witnessing the nepotism from the cronies who run SV Pop Warner,  I was glad I didn't have him play earlier.  SVPW placed my son's mostly inexperienced team, the Wolverines, in a division much more experienced than them.  Phone calls, letters and meetings from Wolverine coaches and parents pleading with the league to move the team down a division were met with deaf ears, utter reluctance and eventually complete aggravation by the league.  These poor boys were cannon fodder for SVPW's teams that seemed to be favorites of those running this league.  I've never witnessed such violence that was ENCOURAGED by the coaches of the opposing teams (luckily the Wolverines didn't have such coaches).  The other teams KNEW they could run over the Wolverines, and instructed their players to do so.  Many of us heard the other teams' coaches instruct their players to tackle illegally!  Several concussions and injuries due to illegal tackles meant to inflict injury were suffered on my son's team.  It was a horrible experience and the entire Pop Warner system should be investigated nationwide.  Stories like these are not isolated incidents.  They are the status quo in the Pop Warner league.  I'm looking at you too Tustin Pop Warner.


@Jennifer Hudson  

Exactly. If someone teaches a child in their care to do something in an improper/dangerous manner aren't they responsible if he/she gets injured?

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