The Pop Warner player, who was paralyzed at age 13 and died last year at age of 18, was a case study for the harms of the youth football game. The shocking extent of his brain damage wasn’t known until after his death.
In the fall of 2011, 13-year-old Donnovan Hill was paralyzed after making a tackle in the championship game of a Pop Warner youth football game in California. Looking to make a stop near the goal line, young Donnovan led with his helmet, using a tackling technique we still see multiple times on Saturdays and Sundays among the college and pro ranks. Donnovan spun around and lay face-down on the field.
In the words of his mom, Crystal Dixon, “It instantly got really quiet. Donnovan wasn’t moving. He looked up at me and said ‘Mom, I love you. That’s the only thing he said was ‘Mom, I love you.’ Like he was telling me that he was OK.”
But he wasn’t OK. While his brain function was seemingly left unaffected, the force of the hit left him paralyzed from the neck down.
At the time, the conversation about head injuries and the safety of football as it related to pro football was growing. Donnovan’s injury focused that same inquiry squarely on youth football, where about 3 million American youngsters played youth tackle football, some as young as five years-old. The tragic case of Donnovan Hill shined a searing light on Pop Warner football, raising difficult questions about coaching and safety in youth football.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines covered it with a segment that questioned whether the volunteer coaches of Pop Warner were sufficiently trained in teaching “safe” tackling techniques and whether the sport as a whole was safe:
Even before this, with the growing concerns about head injuries in football, participation numbers in Pop Warner football had begun to drop. In the overall, youth football leagues have seen age 6-14 participation drop from approximately 3 million in 2010 to just over 2 million five years later—a drop of over 25 percent. Anecdotally, it seems that while awareness about head injuries like CTE, post-concussion syndrome, and other traumatic brain injuries is on the rise, many parents still do not understand or appreciate the serious risks ― outside concussions - of serious brain injury from playing football.
In July of 2015, Outside The Lines did an update segment on Donnovan, who by then was 17 years old.
The segment shows the all-encompassing efforts of his mother and others to provide the constant care needed by a quadriplegic. But it also revealed a sparkling, thoughtful, smart and engaged young man, a lover of music and an amateur poet who was beloved by his friends.
And that was the last we had heard about Donnovan’s story. Until last year.
Last year, due to a tragic complication during a routine skin graft surgery, a procedure that was necessary due to his prior injuries, Donnovan Hill died. He was 18 years old.
But the story of Donnovan Hill and his impact on the world of youth football didn’t end there.
Donnovan and his mom had decided that when he passed away, he would donate his brain to be studied. The shocking results show that Donnovan, who had stopped playing tackle football at the age of 13, had such massive brain damage, that doctors are having a hard time understanding how he functioned day-to-day.
We spoke to Donnovan’s mom, Crystal Dixon, about Donnovan’s life, his story, and her hopes for the future.
Before we get to his brain, we have to start with Donnovan the person.
“Donnovan was an amazing kid. From day one, we knew he was special. He was really intelligent. He was reading at 4 years old.” Crystal recalled that he used to tell her, ‘You need to pay attention to me. Because I know stuff.’”
Donnovan taught himself how to play football. He would study NFL Rewind and ESPN. As a small boy, he knew every player, all of their statistics, and where they went to school. Donnovan started off playing flag football when he was 8 or 9 years old. Everyone liked Donnovan, but no one liked playing against him. He had an uncommon competitive spirit. And on the field, he was blazing fast. When he would run, murmurs would go up: “Where did he learn to run like that?”
He moved on to play in Junior All American, a competing tackle league to Pop Warner. Crystal’s boss’s husband had taken notice of Donnovan’s on-the-field exploits. He was a Pop Warner coach and convinced Donnovan to move over to Pop Warner, where he played ― and dominated ― for the next three years.
Crystal Dixon described herself as “a typical average loud mom.” She was the running soundtrack to all the highlight-reel home-movies starring Donnovan: all you can hear is her voice cheering in the background. As she said when asked about her relationship with football, “Back then, I was all for it. I didn’t know better.”
Then came the one big hit, and the paralyzing injury. And everything changed.
Life got very hard. But Donnovan remained a great and incredibly resilient kid. After his injury, after returning to school, he “matured” into what his mom lovingly referred to as “a typical teenager,” as a bit of age-appropriate mischief crept in. Through it all he was beloved and charismatic, a big-hearted kid who was always looking out for everybody, especially his mom.
She recalled that Donnovan’s memorial service was standing room only, just packed with people. Everyone had something positive to say about how Donnovan had changed their lives. As his mom explained, until that moment she hadn’t realized all the things he had been doing for everyone, including his elders. In short, despite his injury, Donnovan was the kind of kid that does what we all aspire to do: change people’s lives and impact the world around him.
After he passed away, Crystal sent his brain to Boston University to be studied by famed CTE doctor Anne McKee. Unbeknownst to many outside his mother, Donnovan and she had agreed about two years ago that if anything ever happened to him, he would donate his brain to be studied.
Donnovan knew something was going on with his brain. He had began to have increasingly bad memory problems. For example, he would finish eating and then ask me “Mom, did we eat?” His mom recalls being hard on him for being forgetful: “Donnovan, I just told you that.” But she realized, towards the end, that there was something wrong.
As Crystal explained, “When Donnovan was hurt, we knew he had a spinal cord injury. But they told us his brain was OK. Then he began to have problems remembering things, problems paying attention. We didn’t know the extent of it. Now, from what doctors tell me, he was suffering silently. He was taking AP classes, and how he did that, I have no idea.”
He had also learned about CTE and the traumatic brain injuries that many football players were suffering from. Crystal had seen a special on ESPN about concussions and CTE and did some online research. She had found one interview and thought. ‘This is Donnovan.’ She told him, ‘I think you may have CTE.’ Donnovan said ‘Don’t say that. You’re scaring me.’ But then they met former NFL offensive lineman, Kyle Turley, who was in a documentary called ‘Football in America.’ Crystal had Donnovan watch it, but he couldn’t finish it ― it was too emotional for him. After watching part of the documentary, he said ‘If anything ever happens to me, I want my brain donated,” because he could see himself in that documentary when he was watching it.
When they studied his brain, the doctors from Boston University did not find CTE, but they did find massive brain damage. The medical report showed “severe” damage to the white matter of his brain. As Crystal said, “The way they explained it me, Donnovan’s brain was so messed up, they had never seen anything like that. To the extent that they wanted to study his brain further to get more information.” The doctors reported said that the brain damage they observed was so severe that they didn’t know how Donnovan was functioning day to day.
According to the BU doctors, what he did was amazing, because with damage like that, he shouldn’t have been able to go to school, take AP classes, and to do as much on his own as he did. Donnovan was quadriplegic, but he used computer. He wrote music. He wrote poetry. The doctors remarked that they had never seen this type of injury in a 13 year-old, and they had never seen that combined with ability to do all those things.
Dr. Seth Stoller, who is Neurology Chief at the Concussion Center and Director of the Headache Center at Atlantic Neuroscience Institute, independently reviewed the medical report from Boston University. He remarked that “It is extremely unusual to see these findings on pathology from one event. While it is possible that these findings were the aggregation of multiple sub-concussive blows, usually patients are not able to function to this level after having a diffuse axonal injury to their brain. [i.e., a diffuse brain injury involving multiple areas of brain]. Unfortunately, this indicates that there are likely other young athletes who are having these pathologic findings from multiple traumatic brain injuries.”
Speaking of the results of the medical test, Crystal said she was surprised that it was so bad, but she knew - from dealing with Donnovan day to day - “something was going to show up.”
Today, Crystal is working towards starting a Foundation called ‘Donnovan’s Dream’ to help spread awareness and to help other kids. She describes her relationship with football as “a love-hate relationship.” While she grew up on football, it has also taken her only son.
Crystal believes that there is much work to do at the youth levels, and that is where she wants to focus there, to help kids. Two things she mentioned were being a proponent of Flag Football at the youth levels and being fearful that helmets at the youth levels do more harm than good. In addition, doctors like Dr. Stoller believe that rule changes in youth sports, as well as the advancement of the scientific understanding of traumatic brain injury, will be critical to the protection of our youth and the overall brain health of future generations. “Our goal, as physicians,” he said, “is for these advancements to made for the current generation of children.”
Like so many of us, Crystal Dixon struggles to figure out the right approach and whether there even is a right approach:
“Do we take this away from our kids? Because in the inner cities, this is all these kids have. So its a hard thing. But the question is ‘how do we make it safer’ and ‘is it possible’ ― and we don’t have the answer to that. And that’s what I’m struggling with now, as to how to help. But I do know that I want to get Donnovan’s Dream out there, so we can share his story and help someone.”
Crystal also spoke about the need to spread awareness and change the culture so that we focus more on the safety of our children:
“The way we are in America with football, I just don’t think everyone gets it yet. I don’t think people get that we need to protect our kids. Because if we don’t protect these kids, there’s not going to be anymore football.”
As a child, Donnovan used to tell his mom, “You need to pay attention to me. Because I know stuff.” Now, Donnovan’s life and death has shown us the potential devastating impact of youth football on children’s brains. The extent of brain damage that Donnovan suffered at the age of 13 adds another data point to the growing list of cases of youth football players being diagnosed with CTE.
We need to keep paying attention.
This post originally appeared at the Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.
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