PHOENIX - The Hopi High School football team was in the midst of its best regular season ever, going 9-1 into a playoff game against a top-seeded team. Facing a complete shutdown, senior running back Charles Youvella caught a pass and scored the team's only touchdown in the third quarter.
About halfway through the fourth quarter in Saturday's 60-6 loss to Arizona Lutheran Academy, Youvella fell hard on his head and collapsed a couple of plays later. He died Monday at the hospital of a traumatic brain injury, the Arizona Interscholastic Association said.
Scott Indahl, the head coach at Arizona Lutheran Academy, said he has watched the tape from the game and never saw any signs of Youvella acting hurt.
Youvella's death was a somber end to a football season in which the players had grown more enthusiastic about the game on the small northeastern Arizona reservation. It also comes at a time when head injuries in football are attracting attention at all levels of the sport. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council two weeks ago called for a national system to track sports-related concussions and answer questions about youth concussions.
The report said 250,000 people age 19 and younger were treated in emergency rooms for concussions and other sports- or recreation-related brain injuries in the country in 2009. That was an increase from 150,000 in 2001.
A community memorial is planned Wednesday evening at the high school auditorium in Keams Canyon. The high school has grief counselors on hand and is releasing students early Thursday to attend funeral services in Polacca.
Youvella died with this family at his side. His father, Wallace Youvella Jr., is the school's athletic director.
School spirits were high earlier Saturday as the boys and girls cross country teams won state titles, the boys extending the longest-running streak of consecutive wins in the nation. Some of the fans stayed in the Phoenix area to watch the football team take on Arizona Lutheran in the first round playoff game.
Head football coach Steve Saban said Youvella was part of a batch of kids who had been playing for him for years and had vowed to put in the work needed to become the standout team in football, which isn't the most popular sport at the school. The only loss the Bruins had this season was in overtime.
"We had just a beautiful season, best record in school history," he said. "Down there in the state playoffs, it was just a great experience for the kids. And then the terrible tragedy. It was just like a bad dream."
The Hopi radio station, KUYI, was doing its first live remote broadcast of an Arizona state playoff game when Youvella was hit. Broadcaster Stan Bindell told listeners that Youvella went down but the extent of his injury wasn't known. The game resumed about 45 minutes later after Youvella was taken to the hospital.
"I wasn't aware of the magnitude of the problem," said Bindell, who also teaches journalism on the Hopi reservation. "A lot of times, they take football players to the hospital just for precaution. When I heard the news (Monday) night, I was stunned, just like everybody here."
Hopi High School principal Glenn Gilman was on the sidelines encouraging Youvella throughout the game. The Hopi players were tired and some of them were cramping up, but they were unrelenting in moving forward, Gilman said.
"Charles really had a strong will and just never gave up, especially when it came to athletics," Gilman said.
Gilman said the initial call from an athletic trainer from Arizona Lutheran was that Youvella had suffered a concussion. Emergency responders arrived about 15 minutes after Youvella collapsed, he said.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association said an account will be established to help defray costs for the Youvella family.
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald tweeted a picture of Youvella and asked people to pray for the teen's family, friends and teammates.
"The heart that he played with, the tenacity, the passion -- that spoke for itself," Saban said. "The young kids, especially if they were bigger kids, they'd see this little, tiny kid doing what he's doing. Charles led by example."