Donnovan Hill, who sued Pop Warner football in an effort to improve safety in youth football after being paralyzed in a game when he was 13, died Wednesday during surgery related to his injury. He was 18.
His mother, Crystal Dixon, confirmed her son’s death for ESPN’s Tom Farrey, who had reported on Hill’s life. Hill, who lived in Lakewood, Calif., died during what Farrey reported was a routine procedure to clean out a skin graft he had been given because of pressure sores. Dixon told Farrey that the doctor accidentally cut an artery and her son fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. The hospital did not confirm that for Farrey.
According to Farrey: “As he was wheeled into the operating room, Dixon said Hill told her and other family members on site, ‘I love you all.’ Dixon said she responded that he didn’t need to say that, that he’ll be back out soon. Hill said, ‘I just want to say, I love you all.’ ”
Hill, who was paralyzed as he made a tackle near the goal line during a regional Pop Warner championship game, was at greater risk of paralysis because of a congenital narrowing of his neck bones, a condition that was discovered after his injury. He and his family reached a seven-figure settlement with Pop Warner, the organization that had about 325,000 football players and cheerleaders as members last year. Hill was hurt making a headfirst tackle and his family’s lawsuit alleged that coaches were not trained in teaching the proper techniques. Not long after that settlement, Pop Warner settled another case involving a Wisconsin man who had killed himself at 25. At autopsy, his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has been linked to head trauma, and his family alleged that he had been inadequately protected during games.
Hill leaves a legacy of safety awareness for those who have played the game in the five years since he was injured. Last summer, Pop Warner announced that it would join Heads Up Football, a program run by USA Football, a national youth football governing body that receives NFL funding. Pop Warner indicated that it planned for its 1,300 associations to go through certification. As its name indicates, the Heads Up program teaches players not to lead with their heads when blocking and tackling, as well as concussion awareness and other things.
Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers player who remains paralyzed after suffering an injury during a game in 2010, was stunned by Hill’s death and called for a cure for paralysis.
Hill’s name may not be well known, but he helped make a difference in football.
“Anyone who cares about the safety of kids playing football, or any sport,” Farrey tweeted Wednesday, “owes Donnovan Hill and his unprecedented settlement a thank you.”