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A family is suing Pop Warner football over their son's suicide

Joseph Chernach, who committed suicide in 2012, is shown playing for Forest Park High School.
Joseph Chernach, who committed suicide in 2012, is shown playing for Forest Park High School.
(Courtesy of the Chernach family)

The family of Joseph Chernach — who committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 25 — is suing Pop Warner, the country's largest youth football organization, as well as Lexington Insurance, which insured the league while Chernach played in it. The family claims his death was a result of brain injuries suffered while playing for the league.

Chernach played tackle football for eight years, both in Pop Warner and at Forest Park High School in Wisconsin. After his death, examination of his brain revealed that he had an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — the same disease found in several older former NFL players who have committed suicide.

Chernach's parents, Jeffrey Chernach and Debra Pyka, recently wrote about their son's death in an article for Vox. Chernach dropped out of Central Michigan University and suffered from depression for several years before hanging himself.

Pyka is the plaintiff in the case, and is seeking $5 million in punitive damages, accusing Pop Warner of failing to follow known policies that would have reduced the risk of brain trauma to players, such as limiting hitting in practice, using the safest helmets available, and following established concussion protocols.

This is the first suit filed against Pop Warner for long-term brain damage suffered by a player (the league was previously sued by the family of a player who was paralyzed after a single hit). The Times speculates that, if Pyka wins, it could increase insurance premiums for Pop Warner and other leagues.

For that to happen, though, Pyka will have to establish that injuries sustained during Pop Warner led to Chernach developing CTE, and eventually committing suicide. In addition to playing high school football, Chernach wrestled and pole vaulted.

Ann McKee, the Boston University neurologist who examined Chernach's brain after his death, told the New York Times that his case of CTE was "the worst example of this in someone this young." Some of the worst damage was found in the areas of his brain commonly associated with depression, which Chernach suffered from for years before committing suicide.

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