Willie McGinnis endured nearly an entire high school football game as his players alleged being intimidated by fans, called racial slurs and likened to monkeys, the head coach said.
Then, McGinnis added, there was one final indignity after the game as he and his team left the field - their opponents allegedly chanted the n-word while heading into the home team locker room.
Under Friday night lights, the coach wept.
The trouble, McGinnis said, started in the second quarter as his team, the Roxbury Prep High School Wolves, faced off against the Georgetown Middle High School Royals on Sept. 17. Georgetown has a student body that is 93% White, while 97% of Roxbury Prep students are either Black or Latino.
About 450 people were packed at the field in Georgetown, Mass., less than 10 miles from the New Hampshire border. The Wolves were about 90 minutes from their school's campus in the Boston suburbs. What was supposed to be a routine night of high school football devolved into one of chaos, so much so that referees had to cancel the game after a fight between players. McGinnis and his assistant coaches are alleging the melee broke out over the racial slurs Royals players repeatedly hurled at the Wolves throughout the game while referees and the Royals' coaches did nothing to stop it.
Georgetown Public Schools Superintendent Carol Jacobs wrote in a statement the following day that there were "many different versions of what happened at this game . . . swirling around on social media" and that school officials and police were investigating. Georgetown Police Chief Donald Cudmore told WCVB his department is working with the Essex District Attorney's Office to figure out what happened.
The school district and police department did not respond to messages from The Washington Post last week asking about the status of the investigation or whether they are challenging McGinnis's allegations.
The Sept. 17 football game is the latest in a string of incidents involving racist taunts against high school athletes. In July, a Southern California basketball team was stripped of its regional title after members of the predominantly White team threw tortillas at their opponents, who were mostly Latino. In March, a football player in Northern Virginia said his opponents had insulted him and his teammates, calling them racial slurs and spitting on them.
McGinnis, 32, said the problem started just before halftime when one of his players told him an opponent had called him the n-word twice. McGinnis, who also serves as his school's dean of students, said he reported the incident to the head referee and one of his assistants. The ref promised to speak to the Royals, but McGinnis said he's not sure "the seriousness of the situation took hold."
As McGinnis's players first reported being called racist slurs, the coach said he told them during halftime to respond "using our pads."
"The only message I had was we need to be better men . . . and I asked them to stifle everything they had," he told The Post.
But in the second half, McGinnis said, things appeared to be escalating. His players kept reporting that the Royals were calling them the n-word and comparing them to apes and monkeys. At one point in the third quarter, he said, fans got closer to the back of the Wolves bench and tried to interact with players. When one of the assistant coaches told the crowd to get back, McGinnis said, he was also called the n-word.
Five fathers of Wolves players then formed a line to protect the team, he added.
"It felt like a hostile environment," the coach said.
McGinnis said he again reported the racial slurs to the refs. "Their response was they were not hearing anything" but would throw a flag if they did.
The Royals were leading 44-8 at the end of the third quarter when a fight broke out among the players. The two Georgetown police officers who had been assigned to work the event called for backup and two more officers came, the police chief told Boston.com.
McGinnis told The Post a Royals player shoved one of his guys, who was then grabbed and held by another Royals player. That led four Wolves players, McGinnis and other coaches to rush the field during the melee to separate the two sides, he said. That's when McGinnis alleges he himself heard a Royals player say the n-word.
Eventually, the referee had police disperse the crowd, and McGinnis headed back to his sideline. His team decided to keep playing, but a short while later, two players came to him with tears in their eyes, he said. The alleged barrage of racial epithets coming from the opposing team had continued.
"It was at that point that I decided the game needed to be over," he said. He told the refs his team was done.
As the Wolves headed off the field, McGinnis said he heard more Royals players chanting the n-word. That was the moment McGinnis said drove him to tears.
Jacobs, the Georgetown schools superintendent, said she was at the game but didn't hear any racial slurs. Still, she said the district had reached out to administrators at McGinnis's school and planned to bring in an independent investigator.
Tim Manning, a Georgetown parent who was picking up his twin sons from the game, told Boston.com he watched the fight at the end of the third quarter and doesn't believe Royals players were using racial epithets.
"I know a lot of the kids who go to the game, they wouldn't say that word to an African American, and I know (many) of the people in the stands and walking the sidelines, adults - selectmen, coaches, principals, parents - if they heard any kid saying that to that team, they would have went right up to that kid and grabbed him," he said.
The tension has continued in the week and a half since the game. Some residents in the town's Facebook group, which has since been made private, have accused McGinnis or another Wolves coach of being the man shown in video footage grabbing a Royals player by his pads, pulling him off a Wolves player and then throwing him to the ground. McGinnis told The Washington Post he wouldn't "confirm or deny" whether he is the man in the video.
McGinnis said he was disappointed the adults - the refs, the Royals' coaches and police - did not do more to intervene after he and his colleagues reported the allegations of racist language. His players had traveled an hour and a half to play a game they enjoy.
"Instead it was made into a traumatic experience for them," McGinnis said.
McGinnis apologized to his players for what happened but told them he was proud they had kept their composure. Georgetown police escorted them out of town. He said the 1½-hourlong bus ride home was somber and quiet.
The Wolves played the Millis High School Mohawks at home on Friday night. McGinnis said his message to his players ahead of the game was simple: "Let's get back to the game of football the way it's supposed to be played." Millis High won 28-0, but McGinnis said that despite losing the game, it was a win to get back out on the field.
But, McGinnis said, another game wouldn't wipe out what he underwent on Sept. 17.
"When you have a traumatic experience that involves racism, that is burned into your memory," he said. "And that's something that will live with you for the rest of your life."