Blaming suicide on youth football injuries, suit seeks $5 million from Pop Warner

     Joseph Chernach at 13. (Photo courtesy of Chernach family)

    Joseph Chernach at 13. (Photo courtesy of Chernach family)

    The mother of a young man who committed suicide in 2012 has filed a lawsuit against the youth football league Pop Warner, claiming his death was the result of brain injuries suffered over the course of four years with the league.

    Starting at 11, Joseph Chernach played youth football for Pop Warner in Wisconsin and Michigan.

    During that period, claims the suit, the Bucks County-based youth league didn’t follow policies to reduce the risk of brain trauma, such as limiting hitting in practice and using the safest helmets available.

    Chernach committed suicide at 25. An autopsy concluded that he had suffered severe brain trauma.

    Debra Pyka, Chernach’s mother, is saying that the years her son played with Pop Warner contributed to his brain injuries, which eventually led to his death.

    “The consequence of this case prevailing,” said attorney Gordon Johnson, who is representing Pyka. “Is it will became financially very, very difficult to run a youth football league for children who are young enough that it’s considered an inherently dangerous activity to play the game.”

    Blaming a suicide on four years of youth football is a questionable allegation, said Josh Pruce, a spokesman for Pop Warner, in an email.

    While questioning the merits of the suit, Pruce also said the issue of player safety remains paramount to the organization.

    “This is a terrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to Joseph’s family,” Pruce said. “Pop Warner has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of addressing player safety. We have implemented significant rule changes and medical protocols as we constantly look at how to make the game as safe as possible for children.”

    Johnson is treating the suit as the first step of a larger quest to ban youth football altogether.

    “Now that may be an existential problem for Pop Warner, but if it is, it is,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to have youth football. If the only service that Pop Warner and Little Scholars Inc. does to the community is to provide a way for children to get brain damage, then maybe we can live without that service.”

    The suit seeks $5 million in punitive damages.

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