Donnovan Hill, who was left paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle as a 13-year-old during a Pop Warner football game in Laguna Hills, has died. He was 18.
The subject of an emotional ESPN documentary and a legal case whose ramifications forever changed youth football, Hill passed away Wednesday after complications from surgery related to management of his injury, according to his mother, Crystal Dixon of Lakewood.
ESPN’s Tom Farrey gives an account on Hill’s final hours. The teen went to the hospital Tuesday for what was believed to be a routine procedure: cleaning out a skin graft related to pressure sores on his lower body. Before heading out the door, Hill (@hill_donnovan) posted what would be his final tweet: “Minor surgery today #PRAY4VIZZY.” (Vizzy was one of his nicknames.)
Hill’s mother says he told her and another family member as he was being wheeled in, “I love you all.” Dixon responded that he did not have to say that, that he’d be returning soon, to which Hill replied, “I just want to say, I love you all.”
That was Dixon’s last conversation with her only son. During surgery, the doctor accidentally cut an artery, there was much blood loss and the young man slipped into a coma, she told Farrey. The hospital has not confirmed details of his death.
Confirming for the Weekly that his client had died, lawyer Rob Carey says, “Donnovan was a strong and courageous young man, and it is with great regret and heavy hearts that we share this news. We hope that his memory will stand as a testament to the importance of safety in youth sports.”
Hill was a two-way star for the Lakewood 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. He scored the first touchdown of the game on a 40-yard running play but in the third quarter led with his head on defense to make a successful goal-line stand tackle on a running back.
The Saddleback Valley player sprang right up after the helmet-to-helmet hit. Hill did not. He’d suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed the rest of his short life. After numerous surgeries and procedures, he only had minimal use of his arms and no independent movement from his upper chest down.
He and his mother sued the national office of Pop Warner on March 6, 2014, alleging the organization failed to take measures to ensure local coaches were properly trained. The “incorrect and dangerous method” of tackling with one’s head down is “not only banned by Pop Warner but also prohibited at all levels of football,” according to a statement from Carey’s Los Angeles law firm, Hagens Berman. “… Hill and other teammates repeatedly cited physical discomfort and raised safety concerns with the head coach about the improper tackling technique, but were rebuffed, and coaching to lead with the head continued unabated.”
The volunteer coaches denied the allegations against them. But the lawsuit led to an unprecedented seven-figured settlement with Pop Warner. Both parties agreed not to disclose the terms nor the exact amount, but the litigation is credited with leading to another multi-million dollar settlement with a Wisconsin family that claimed their son killed himself at 25 because of a brain injury he sustained playing Pop Warner football.
“Donnovan’s case will have an impact on young athletes for generations,” Carey says. “It will help ensure that those in charge of safety–from directors and coaches to whole organizations–will not be allowed to shirk their duties or avoid responsibility.”