High School Football

Former East St. Louis football player blames school and coach for brain damage

East St. Louis head football coach Darren Sunkett.
East St. Louis head football coach Darren Sunkett. File Photo

It was as the East St. Louis High School football team rolled to a 65-12 win at Collinsville on Oct. 3, 2008, when Demond Hunt Jr. says he told his coaches he had a headache and other symptoms of a concussion.

According to a lawsuit the then-junior linebacker filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court last week, head coach Darren Sunkett sent him back into the game anyway.

Hunt ended up having several small strokes and a seizure on the sideline, spent five weeks in a hospital, two weeks in a coma, and has been left with permanent brain and neurological damage, the lawsuit states.

The civil suit names Sunkett and the school district individually as well as helmet manufacturer Schutt Holdings and Curt Smith's Sporting Goods in Belleville, which sold equipment to the program, as defendants.

Hunt is asking $200,000 compensation for on-going medical treatment and "an amount in excess of $50,000" for other damages. The suit originally was filed in 2009, but was voluntarily dismissed.

“This case was re-filed by another attorney after having been dismissed last year. District 189 has already investigated and denied the claim, and we will continue to vigorously defend against it,” District 189 spokesperson Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said. “Beyond that, the district does not comment on pending litigation.”

As of Tuesday evening, Sunkett had not replied to phone calls or text messages seeking comment on the lawsuit. Shutt and Curt Smith’s declined comment.

The lawsuit states that Hunt’s helmet was defective and that its air-filled cushions were not properly inflated.

It goes on to allege that the incident reflects a culture within East St. Louis School District 189 that prioritizes winning above the safety of its student-athletes.

According to the lawsuit filed by Wood River Attorney Thomas Maag, Sunkett frequently instructed athletes to continue playing through untreated injuries. He taunted players who complained, often telling them to "quit playing like a little bitch and get out there," the lawsuit states.

Fearful of ridicule, the suit alleges, players became hesitant to report when they had been hurt. Sunkett further instructed athletes to not tell their parents about their injuries, the suit states.

The school district administration was aware of Sunkett’s practices, yet has done nothing to correct the coach or interject on behalf of injured athletes, the lawsuit states.

In a 2008 practice, Hunt says in the lawsuit, Sunkett ordered him to tackle an unnamed teammate while neither was wearing pads. The result was a broken collar bone for Hunt and a fractured neck for the teammate, who is not otherwise identified in the complaint.

"(District) 189 and Sunkett provided no treatment, instead placed him on a flight to a tournament," the complaint states. According to the Flyers' 2008 schedule, that flight would presumably have been to a game held at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio.

In 14 seasons as the Flyers’ coach, Sunkett has amassed a record of 126-40 and won two state championships, the most recent of which was last season. He previously won a Missouri state football championship as head coach at Riverview Gardens. East St. Louis currently is sitting at 7-1 and ranked No. 1 in Illinois Class 7A.