Get your tissues ready; the story of Donnovan Hill is not a pleasant one. In November of 2011, Donnovan Hill, just a 13 year old playing defense in a Pop Warner Championship, took a vicious blow to the head, resulting in a fractured spine.
Immediately after the impact of the collision, Hill’s body went limp and he was motionless on the field. Hill was soon rushed to the Hospital. Upon regaining consciousness, Hill was informed that he was paralyzed from the neck down. The play, along with other interviews of the Hill family, can be found here:
As you can see, Hill leads with his head and flies in like a heat-seeking missile, a tackling technique he learned from his coaches. Any decent football coach will discourage this kind of tackling. Its potential for danger and injury is extravagant. A player could get hit in their prefrontal cortex, impairing their cognitive ability, or maybe their occipital lobe, damaging their vision. In Donnovan Hill’s case, however, the hit damaged his neck and spine too. This leads me to the first takeaway from Donnovan’s story: proper tackling form.
If you’re going to play football, proper tackling form is the single most important thing you need to practice. It means leading with your shoulders and chest, not your head. It means keeping your head up, not down. As the old football saying goes, “hit what you see and see what you hit.” It means squatting and rolling your hips at the point of attack, not lunging and sending your body forward off the ground.
Donnovan found solace writing poetry and rapping during the next five years of his life, all spent in a wheelchair. His mother quit her job to become his full-time caretaker. Life was a daily struggle for the two.
But through the dark times, Donnovan fought and persevered to the best of his ability. He made it his purpose in life to help the families of fallen players with traumatic brain and spinal injuries cope with their loss. Donnovan Hill became a symbol and an icon of courage and hope. Hill’s strength reflects the second concept we can learn: Finding love in the darkest of times. No matter what we go through, we must always remind ourselves that as long as we have lungs supplying oxygen and a heart pumping blood, we can still work towards a good cause. I find Donnovan’s mindset to be inspirational.
Donnovan Hill died on May 11th, 2016, from complications to his injury-related surgery. He was 18 years old.
Something else we can learn, or rather ponder, is that the age to start playing football is now up for question. Should it be at 13? During High School (14-17)? In college (18-22)? The brain is still developing during all three of these time periods.
How many more paraplegic injuries will it take until something huge changes in football culture? How many more severe concussions and suicides? How many more players, whether young adults or retired veterans, will report being unable to function like the rest of us? Don’t worry Donnovan, we will learn from your story and someday the game will change. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to solve future tragedies.