Coach remembers Arizona high school football player who died after head injury

Coach remembers Arizona high school football player who died after head injury


Coach remembers Arizona high school football player who died after head injury


Hopi High School was celebrating what head football coach Steve Saban described as “a beautiful season.”

The team had gone 9-1, its best season ever, and had traveled to Phoenix to face the No.1-seeded Arizona Lutheran Academy to open the Arizona Interscholastic Association Division V playoffs.

In the final quarter of what turned out to be a 60-6 loss Saturday, Hopi senior Charles Youvella, 17, a running back and defensive back, was tackled hard and fell to the ground after catching a pass, apparently hitting his head.

“He tried to play another play and collapsed,” Saban said.

Two days later, Saban was saying goodbye to the player many called the toughest on the team. Youvella died Monday night at St.Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

“You think he’ll be OK,” Saban said. “It got progressively worse.”

The immediate impact in Keams Canyon, where Hopi Junior/Senior High is located, was disbelief that a player described by his coach as “having the heart of a lion” could be gone.

“It’s like a bad dream,” said teammate Blake Sekaquaptewa, Hopi High’s leading rusher and a friend of Youvella’s since the eighth grade. “I can’t put into words the whole situation. It was unbelievable.”

Added Saban: “It’s hard to believe. It feels like we’re in a dream where we don’t want to be, but it’s true.”

Youvella’s death had a wide-reaching impact beyond the Hopi Reservation, which is about a 41/2-hour drive from Phoenix. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald posted Youvella’s picture on Facebook, asking people to send prayers to the family.

Members of the Arizona Lutheran community arranged for gift cards for food, gas and other needs so the Youvella family, who remained in town through Tuesday morning, could be with Charles in the hospital. Arizona Lutheran Athletic Director Doug Meyer estimated community members raised about $1,500.

Youvella’s father, Wallace, is Hopi’s athletic director and serves on the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board. AIA Associate Executive Director Chuck Schmidt said Wallace Youvella was unable to speak to reporters Tuesday.

“I’m a dad, too,” said Meyer, who served with Wallace in 2A Conference leadership for about five years. “You think about your sons and what they’re doing in sports. My heart ached trying to put myself in his spot.”

Saban addressed his players Tuesday morning at the school.

“There’s nothing you can script,” Saban said. “You talk to them from the heart, try to offer being here for them.”

A memorial service will be held at 7 tonight at the school. A funeral will be held Thursday.

Sekaquaptewa was on the field when Charles Youvella collapsed. Saban said Youvella was cognizant while paramedics worked on him.

“I didn’t see what happened,” Sekaquaptewa said. “Paramedics came over and said it was precautionary.”

In the second quarter of Saturday’s game, Sekaquaptewa pitched the ball to Youvella on a trick play that led to Hopi’s only touchdown.

“He was a little tough guy,” Sekaquaptewa said. “He’s always been the toughest one on the team.”

Meyer said 911 was called immediately and Youvella was taken from the school at 6036 S. 27th Ave. to the hospital in a timely manner.

“All that was done by the book,” Meyer said. “Our school to St. Joseph’s can’t be more than a few minutes. It was not very long (before the paramedics arrived). The fire station that serves our school is about two minutes from our school.

“If a normal person watched the football film, they’d be hard-pressed to find anything that happened other than a series of normal plays in a football game.”

Head injuries have been the focus of increased scrutiny in football, as has the role of helmets in helping make the sport safer. Saban said he felt Youvella was well-protected and doesn’t believe there was “a helmet or a piece of equipment that could have prevented what happened.”

Schmidt said there was no indication of faulty equipment or a history of concussions with Youvella. A preliminary autopsy report was not available from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Over the past 10 years, an average of fewer than three players per year have died of on-field injuries playing high- school football, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.

Cardiac arrest, heatstroke and head trauma are the most common causes.

According to, Youvella was the seventh U.S. high-school player to die this year. In September, a 16-year-old player from Westfield-Brocton High School in New York, Damon James, died three days after being involved in a helmet-to-helmet collision in a game. A month earlier, another 16-year-old player, Deantre Turman, died after breaking his neck while making a tackle in a scrimmage in College Park, Ga.

The most recent catastrophic injury to a Valley high-school football player occurred in a November 2005 scrimmage, when 16-year-old receiver Joe Jackson of Chandler Hamilton was paralyzed from the waist down by a helmet-to-helmet hit.

“You never forget it, and I don’t know if you ever get over it,” said John Wrenn, who was coaching his final season at Hamilton and now works in football operations at Arizona State University. “I can remember everything, from when he went down to going to the hospital to facing his parents.

“It’s hard for me to imagine what that community is going through right now. Getting through it for us was unbelievably hard.”

Meyer said Tuesday that it was too soon to know how Youvella’s death will affect the Arizona Lutheran players as they move forward in the playoffs. The school is the top seed in its division.

“We’ll do our best to focus on academics and two hours of practice,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be in the back of their minds or in the front of their minds for a long time. I don’t know what they’re going to need.”

A fund has been set up through Bank of America to help offset costs. It is set up through Charles Youvella’s name. Hopi High also is accepting donations directly. And, Schmidt said, “catastrophic” insurance is offered and the family is beginning that process now.

“To see the Youvella family come together and support each other has been a true inspiration,” said Schmidt, the AIA official. “Yet, on the other side, it’s a situation where a student-athlete died playing the game. The impact of that is immeasurable.

“We want to assure that the kids at Hopi and at Arizona Lutheran are OK and assuring that this never happens again, if we can do that. It’s something we always strive to do. The question always comes up: Is that even possible?”

Saban stayed overnight Saturday and Sunday at the hospital to be near Youvella and his family.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Saban said. “It’s at that stage where it’s not set in fully, that state of shock and disbelief.

“We were celebrating a beautiful season, a great time down there. The game was just a bonus. Then, tragedy happens.”

Youvella, 5 feet 5, 115 pounds, covered 6-foot-6 wide receiver Brady Cook throughout the game. In addition to scoring the touchdown, he recorded a quarterback sack earlier in the game.

“Just a great kid,” Saban said of Youvella. “Pound for pound, by far the toughest kid I ever coached. He had the heart of a lion. He was 5-5 and 115 pounds wringing wet. But he played 10 times that size.

“Like in life, when you’re born, there are no guarantees,” Saban said. “It’s just real unfortunate. Charles was just a great kid. Always positive. I’ve never seen someone that small in stature have a heart of a lion. He had no fear.”

Donations can be sent to the Charles Youvella Fund, in care of Hopi Jr./Sr. High School, P.O. Box 337, Keams Canyon, AZ 86034.

Scott Bordow and Joe Dana contributed to this article.

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