At 16, Destin Julian was an aspiring high school football player who dreamed of playing in college.
Alabama was his top pick. And his coach, according to his parents, had discussed setting him up with some prestigious college recruiters.
But during a homecoming game in 2015, Julian took a massive blow to the head in a helmet-to-helmet collision that sent him to the sidelines, where he went into a seizure that landed him in a hospital. Two days earlier, he had suffered a similar helmet-to-helmet injury at practice, his family says, but his coach allegedly discouraged him from seeing a doctor and encouraged him to play in the homecoming game.
Julian never played football again.
Two-and-a-half years later, Julian, now 19, is suing Hamady High School football coach Gary Lee and the Westwood Heights School District near Flint in federal court, claiming he was pressured to play while injured that day and that his coach fostered a climate of fear and intimidation in the locker room.
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 26 in U.S. District Court, alleges Lee called players “sissies,” "ho" and used racial slurs when they talked about injuries, telling them to “shake it off" and "play through the pain."
Julian's lawsuit is not novel, but rather highlights a growing legal feud over the impact of football concussions that started at the NFL and has now trickled its way into college and high school sports. In recent years, high school concussion lawsuits have cropped up in Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa — where a former high school football player won a nearly $1-million jury verdict in 2015 for head injuries he sustained playing football.
Pop Warner, the largest and oldest youth football program in the country with 250,000 players, is also facing a class-action lawsuit in California on accusations of lying about making the league safer from brain injuries.
In the Flint case, Julian claims his coach and school duped him too.
Today, Julian is angry, bitter and lost. He has trouble focusing and paying attention. He still has seizures, can’t drive and has violent mood swings and struggles at times to contain his anger — issues that his parents blame on the concussion.
Before homecoming 2015, they say, Julian was a happy-go-lucky kid. But everything is different now, and they want the school district and the coach to pay for failing to protect their son because — they maintain — the district and the coach were more interested in winning football games than keeping kids safe.
Patrick Julian sits with his son Destin Julian in the living room of their Flint home, Wednesday, February 28, 2018. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
"I sent my son to school to learn. I trusted in the school system and the coach who said that he would take care of my son — and I believe that they did not do that," Julian's father, Patrick Julian, told the Free Press last week. " ... In this experience, we learned that it was about the wins."
Westwood Heights Superintendent Peter Toal defended the school district's commitment to keeping athletes safe.
"Our coaches all undergo head trauma training as required by the MHSAA (Michigan High School Athletic Association)," Toal said, adding: "This is, obviously, a very hot topic."
Toal, when interviewed by the Free Press last week, said the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit so he could not comment on any specifics.
As for Lee, the high school football coach named in the lawsuit, Toal would say only: "He’s obviously been very committed to kids. He’s had dozens of students get scholarships under him, including Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman Trophy,
Ingram, a running back who once played high school football under Lee at Flint Southwestern Academy, accepted a scholarship to Alabama, won the 2009 Heisman Trophy and was a first-round draft pick by the New Orleans Saints.
Lee could not be reached for comment and did not return multiple e-mails from the Free Press seeking comment.
'Go hard, hit hard'
Kowanda Julian remembers rushing to the field after watching her son go down on the sidelines during the Hamady Hawks homecoming game. It was Friday night, Oct. 9, 2015.
Julian, a junior, was playing defense when he took a helmet-to-helmet hit. Kowanda Julian didn't see the blow from the stands, but noticed her son couldn't keep his balance as he walked off the field.
"He was kind of shaking at the knees. And then I yelled, 'He's going down! He's going down!,' " she recalled. "That's when he fell. And then he started shaking and going into a seizure."
The frightened mother rushed to the sidelines to be with her son.
"I didn't know how he was going to recover," she said. "I was just panicking."
Julian's father was working that night when he got a call from wife's best friend, teliing him that Destin had suffered a seizure.
"I got there at the same time the ambulance got there. The ambulance (crew) tried to revive him. I was holding him while he was still shaking," recalled Patrick Julian, who rode in the ambulance with his son to Hurley Medical Center.
Julian was hospitalized for two days at Hurley, where he was diagnosed with a posttraumatic seizure and a concussion.
Destin Julian, 19 holds the practice football helmet he wore while playing Hamady High School at his Flint home, Wednesday, February 28, 2018. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
According to the lawsuit, Julian should never have played in that game.
Here, according to the suit, is what happened days before the game:
On Oct. 7, 2015, during football practice, Julian and another student "violently collided" helmet-to-helmet during a play. Julian was noticeably disoriented and appeared to his teammates to be "bumbling" and "just staring." After several minutes, he "snapped out of it and asked his teammate what happened."
The head coach soon learned about the hit. But after practice that day, the lawsuit alleges, he instructed Julian "not to seek medical attention or treatment from his family doctor." Coach Lee also never informed the boy's parents about the injury, or any medical or training personnel.
The next day, the coach told Julian not to participate in the "walk-through" so that he could be "ready for the game" on homecoming night.
Julian, at his coach's direction, ended up playing that game and suffered another "violent hit to his head." He stumbled to the sideline and tried to take a drink of water, but was unable to swallow. He began to shake and became unsteady on his feet. An assistant coach noticed Julian shaking and assisted him to a bench to sit down.
When Julian reached the bench, he started to convulse, suffered a seizure and eventually became unconscious.
This, the lawsuit alleges, was the result of a reckless coach who pushed kids too hard and ignored their injuries, and a lax school district that knew this was going on and failed to protect kids.
"Despite his long career in football as both a player and coach, and his participation in football at the collegiate level at the University of Michigan, Lee fostered and advanced a culture in which injuries to students who played on the football teams were ignored, discounted or otherwise disregarded," attorneys Bill Seikaly and David Sheiner argue in the lawsuit. "Lee furthermore fostered and advanced a culture in which students who played on the football teams were discouraged from seeking assistance from medical professionals for injuries."
And when the students hit the field, the suit claims, Lee drilled this philosophy into their heads: "Go hard, hit hard"
Lee not new to controversy.
Four times in his coaching career, his teams have had to forfeit games because of using ineligible players and because of scuffles.
According to the Flint Journal:
- In 1995, Lee's Flint Northern High School team was involved in a brawl at Muskegon that forced it forfeit its final game because of suspensions of players and coaches.
- In 1998, Northern had to forfeit two games because of the use of an ineligible player. Lee was held responsible and suspended for two games.
- In 2007, while coaching the Southwestern Academy football team in Flint, Lee was suspended for one game for using two players who were serving jail time. The team also forfeited three games because of an ineligible player, costing it a spot in the playoffs.
- In 2009, Saginaw High School's football team — under the direction of Lee — had to forfeit three games because of an ineligible player from Flint being used.
"As far as I am concerned, those chapters are closed," Lee told the Flint Journal in 2013. "If a coach was really in the wrong for doing those kinds of things, then he would not be coaching anymore. It says a lot that several schools have had faith in me in coach their teams."
Lee, who has twice taken teams to the playoffs, was hired in 2012 to be the head football coach at Hamady High School and director of the athletic department.
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