SALT LAKE CITY — The boys sat around a table, shoulder-to-shoulder, choking back sobs as they tried to explain what they don't really even understand.
The senior captains of the East High football team were so heartbroken and confused in the wake of a decision by five members of the Utah High School Activities Association's executive committee to force the top-ranked 4A team to forfeit seven games, including four of five region contests. The 3-2 decision, which was announced Thursday morning, means East, now 1-4 in Region 6, will not qualify for the playoffs while Cyprus, now 2-3 in region play, will be awarded the fourth and final playoff spot.
The boys were informed of the decision just after 10 a.m. Thursday by their equally devastated head coach Brandon Matich.
"Football is everything to us," said East senior captain Patrick Palau, who has committed to play linebacker for BYU after serving a mission. "I don't think anybody recognizes how much hard work we've put into this season, since last November … We just want to play. We want a fair chance."
East principal Paul Sagers said he felt like a heavyweight fighter who'd been knocked down but not out. He immediately appealed the decision and will plead with the a panel representing the UHSAA's Board of Trustees on Friday morning at 10 a.m.
"I don't want to stop fighting until my last breath," he said.
Sagers and East received support from the Salt Lake City School District on Thursday.
"It is unfortunate that today's UHSAA decision has such a drastic impact on players who did nothing wrong," the statement said. "This issue has never been about creating a competitive advantage on the field or mistakes made by the students and their families. It has always centered on errors made in establishing eligibility."
The BOT panel will also hear an appeal of a Timpview case, which was heard after the East case on Wednesday morning. In that case, the T-birds also used an ineligible player, a student who'd moved to Utah from Hawaii last January. He apparently checked the wrong box on his eligibility form, which didn't alert administrators to the fact that he needed to fill out hardship transfer paperwork.
Timpview was forced to forfeit three games, one of which is their region game against Mountain View. Timpview administrators are not appealing that decision but Salem Hill officials are because if Mountain View is given the win, it will eliminate Salem Hills from the playoffs. That hearing begins at 9:30, while the East hearing is schedule for 10 a.m.
The panel struggled mightily with the complicated case, in large part, because no one believed the coach or players were at fault or had acted with intent to deceive.
"This is as difficult a thing as I have ever done," said executive committee chairman Craig Hammer. "It was hard for everybody on the committee; there was nothing easy about it. This was four and a half hours of trying to solve a problem."
He said he doesn't know if rule changes or recommendations to school will occur in the wake of the decision.
"As an executive committee, I'm sure we'll have a lengthy discussion about it," Hammer said. "Especially the importance of having checks and balances, and having more than one set of eyes approve things."
He said the group grappled with any and all possible penalties, but in the end, they said it came down to one critical fact.
"Ultimately (East) is responsible for the eligibility of their kids," he said. "After four and a half hours, that's what it came down to. And to protect the integrity of the rules, of the association and of all of the other schools involved, we arrived at that decision."
That decision was to vacate all wins in which an ineligible player was used.. The region's $1,500 fine will stand, but all other punishments were rescinded. Timpview's fine of $1,500 will also stand.
"There is no doubt that forfeiture is a harsh penalty," the decision read. "Nevertheless, the Association has repeatedly affirmed and enforced such a penalty for the use of ineligible players. Indeed, the Association recognizes that most, if not all, governing organizations of sports regularly impose forfeiture of games in which ineligible players participate."
The decision acknowledged the fact that East athletic director Kathy Butler accepted personal responsibility for the mistakes that led to the ineligible players being used.
"This was not a 'clerical error,' in which a box was wrongly checked or a name misspelled or even a document wrongly filed," the decision said. "It was a wholesale failure to 'to determine that participants have met all eligibility requirements.' There were four separate and distinct episodes in which ineligible students were matriculated as if they were, in fact, eligible."
In Wednesday's hearing in front of the executive committee panel, athletic director Kathy Butler announced that she was resigning as athletic director, a position she's held for 23 years.
"I did make the mistakes," Butler said. "It's my fault. There is a lot of gray area. I will be resigning."
But the panel blamed the system of dealing with student eligibility, as much as Butler because there was no safety net in place and that allowed four cases to go undetected.
"The Panel finds that East's abdication of these responsibilities constituted a severe lack of institutional control," the decision said.
Palau and his teammates begged for mercy and tried to articulate just what football meant to the young men.
"Some of the players here, a lot of their brothers are in jail," said Toni Taliauli, whose son Meti is a captain. "This is something that's either going to make or break them in a way. Just give them a chance to finish off the season … That little chance is going to make a difference in the future."
Doug Swenson, father of senior team captain Zach Swenson, said Matich's ability to rebuild the football program also helped strengthen the school and community.
"When coach Matich came in, he really set a high bar for all of these boys," said Swenson.
"Zach's had a lot of advantages, unfortunately, it's not true with most of these kids," Swenson said, fighting back tears. "Matich has required a lot of them, and they've given their heart and soul. And to have this situation come completely out of their control, and to basically tear their heart out, just seems to me to be wrong."
Swenson doesn't believe the rules ever intended to punish students for the mistakes of an adult.
The ruling doesn't just take wins from a successful football team, he said, it takes hope from young men who didn't have much to hang onto in the first place. It takes something that has brought the community together in a unique and beautiful way.
"We've struggled for years to have a community feel at East," he said. "We have a very diverse student body, and this has created that unity among the student body … All of a sudden they're pulling together for a great thing. Some of these kids believe that they can't get a break in life, and this is reiterating that very (thing)."
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