Joseph Chernach played Pop Warner football for years beginning at age 11
He develops the brain disease linked to football concussions, lawsuit says
He hung himself in his mother's shed in 2012 at age 25
Pop Warner, the nation’s biggest and oldest youth football program, has settled a brain-injury lawsuit filed by the family of a 25-year-old man whose suicide allegedly resulted from concussions in league play starting at age 11.
Joseph Chernach hung himself in his mother’s shed on June 7, 2012, and “a substantial factor” in the suicide was his chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain disease that is linked to concussions, according to the lawsuit filed by his mother, Debra Pyka.
Pop Warner didn’t disclose the terms of the settlement, spokesman Brian Heffron said Wednesday. The Chernach family and their attorney weren’t immediately available for comment.
Pop Warner has instituted measures in the past six years to make the game safer for the 225,000 youngsters in the league, Heffron said. An additional 100,000 youths participate in Pop Warner’s cheer and dance programs.
The lawsuit was filed in Wisconsin against Pop Warner and its insurer in February 2015 and sought $5 million in damages.
“At Pop Warner there is nothing more important than the safety of our players and since 2010, we have led the way in making the game of youth football a safer and better experience than ever before,” the organization said.
The settlement demonstrates how concerns about concussion-related brain damage have grown from the NFL to the youngest levels of football.
Thousands of former professional players sued the NFL in 2012 in a class-action lawsuit accusing the league of negligence for hiding the ties between concussions and CTE, which is a degenerative disease of the brain and is associated with repeated head traumas like concussions.
The NFL sought to dismiss the suit, but the league and the players agreed to a settlement in early 2015 that provides up to $5 million per retired player for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma.
In response to the concerns, Pop Warner established protocols and changed rules “aimed at improving coaching education, limiting contact and requiring any player who suffers a potential head injury to be examined by a medical professional trained in concussions before returning to play,” the youth league said.
The program became the first youth football organization to limit contact during practices, in 2013, and rules forbid full speed head-on blocking or tackling drills in which the players line up more than 3 yards apart. Contact was reduced to a maximum of one-third of practice time, the group said.
Chernach played Pop Warner football as a boy between 1997 and 2000, and he became a good student and outstanding athlete by age 19, graduating high school with high ACT scores, winning several Michigan High School Athletic Association championships, and posting good grades as a freshman at Central Michigan University, the lawsuit said.
By his sophomore year, however, he changed.
The cumulative effects of post-concussion syndrome affected his cognition, behavior, and mood, the lawsuit said.
“From that point on, his cognitive functioning declined each year until his death. From that point on, his behavior became increasingly bizarre. From that point on, his mood became progressively depressed and ultimately paranoid, distrusting his closest friends and family,” the lawsuit said.
“At the time of his death, Joseph Chernach’s mental state had reached the point that he was no longer able to control the impulse to kill himself. Joseph Chernach’s suicide was the ‘natural and probable consequence’ of the brain damage he suffered playing football,” the suit said.
At the time of his death, he lived with his mother in Hixton, Wisconsin.
CNN’s Jill Martin and David Close contributed to this report.