The nephew of homegrown NFL player Reno Mahe was forced to sit out his senior year of football after a contentious battle about the 17-year-old's request to transfer from the West Jordan Jaguars to the Copper Hills Grizzlies.
John Mahe is practicing with the Copper Hills team but is prohibited from playing in the games by Utah High School Athletic Association rules. He and his family say the boy's senior year of football was stolen by a disgruntled West Jordan coach.
West Jordan coach Mike Morgan says rules are rules if you switch schools because of athletics, you have to sit out a year.
"I just wanted to play football," says John Mahe from his home near the foot of the Oquirrh Mountains. "We didn't move here because of football, but I really wanted to play my senior year."
With the state's open enrollment policy for high schools, any student can transfer schools. Controversy can arise when a young person changes schools and tries to play sports at the new venue.
The process for transferring eligibility is straightforward: the student must be enrolled at the new school for a transfer to be considered. The UHSAA evaluates the application. If it has nothing to do with athletics, eligibility is usually approved, says UHSSA director Evan Excell. "Our system is pretty good about giving kids a chance," he says.
The transfer rules do not apply to any activities except athletics. So, a person can participate in speech, music or drama activities all UHSAA sanctioned without applying to transfer eligibility.
But if anyone objects to the transfer as happened in John Mahe's case a full panel is convened to consider the request. If the panel decides the student's transfer was not due to athletics as the Mahe family alleges the student can play sports. If the panel decides the student athlete did move for athletics, he has to sit out a year.
Mahe's was one of six football transfers considered by UHSAA since May, according to Excell.
And there are two very different sides to the story about why Mahe transferred into the Copper Hills boundaries.
Mahe says his parents bought a house two blocks from the school and that the family moved for financial reasons. "We decided I can walk to school and walk back home," his application states.
Meleane Mahe, affirmed finances, not football, were at the root of the reason for her son's new address. "We didn't know it was going to go this bad for him," she said.
John's father, Tevita Mahe, says he knows student athletes sometimes use fake addresses to get eligibility in another school's boundaries. "That's not what happened," he says, frustrated. "I bought this house."
West Jordan has done relatively well this season, while Copper Hills has a losing record. "If I'm thinking about athletics, why wouldn't I take him to Skyline or Brighton?" Tevita Mahe asks.
West Jordan's coach Morgan confirms he denied Mahe's transfer for athletic purposes. UHSAA rules are rules, he says. "They need to uphold those rules and guidelines."
This transfer case centered on a conversation that took place midway through Mahe's junior year between the young man and Morgan, West Jordan athletic director Dan Cowan and coach Scott Briggs.
Mahe had told West Jordan officials he was leaving for Copper Hills, and according to UHSAA documents, the three asked him why he was leaving. Morgan, Cowan and Briggs testified that Mahe told them, "I want to play football at Copper Hills, not West Jordan."
Mahe denies saying this.
The panel heard testimony from all parties: West Jordan coaches and administrators and John Mahe, his family and Copper Hills officials and did not approve the transfer. Before the final decision was made, Mahe and his family had appealed twice and presented their case to a 3rd District Court judge. All appeals were unsuccessful.
"It's sad. There is no other word for it. Somewhere along the way, he got bad advice," Morgan said last week. He was a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end for West Jordan last year, and Morgan says he did a great job.
"The bottom line is that John was great in our program and a great student at our school. He is a quality young man, and I hate to see this happen."
Tevita Mahe is furious. "They pushed this too far," he said of West Jordan coaches.
The panel's decision may have greater implications for John Mahe. The young man's parents have struggled financially, and Mahe who holds down a 3.5 grade-point average needs a football scholarship. His father moved to Utah from Tonga in 1979. The older Mahe has a high school education and wants more for his son.
"If you want to go to college free, you have to get a scholarship. That's what we're all dreaming about."Comment on this story
It is unclear whether Mahe will get a shot at college ball.
Sitting out this season hurts, he says, although he may catch some scouts' eyes because of he was one of 30 players from Utah listed on the "Recruiting Hot List" by ESPN last year. He may walk on somewhere, and he has had some interest from New Mexico and Utah State University.
After the final appeal, Tevita Mahe said he told his son to forget about football for now. "Maybe there is a reason for this. I need you to move on," he told his boy. "This is not the end of the world for football."