Plaschke: Parents of ex-Mater Dei football player share new details of attack, school response

·14 min read
Duncanville, TX - August 27: The Mater Dei Monarchs warm up before the game against the Duncanville Panthers in Panther Stadium on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021 in Duncanville, TX. (Jerome Miron / For the LA Times)
The Mater Dei Monarchs warm up before the game against the Duncanville Panthers in Panther Stadium on Aug. 27 in Duncanville, Texas. The family of a former player argues in a lawsuit there is a culture of hazing within the football program. (Jerome Miron / For the Times)

He didn’t want his Mater Dei teammates to soak his locker in urine.

The 170-pound football player told his parents the fear of retribution prompted him to agree to fight a more experienced 235-pound teammate in the middle of a Mater Dei locker room.

The smaller player, who had yet to play a game for the Monarchs, had been publicly challenged by a third player to compete in the brutal initiation game known as “Bodies,” an organized fight between two players with punches supposedly limited to the torso. The smaller player knew what could happen if he refused to participate.

He had seen the bullying, the teasing, the name-calling and, worst of all, he had seen the lockers of outcasts drenched in urine. He didn’t want to risk enduring that abuse. This was his ticket to acceptance.

“He felt if he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t fit in, and he wanted to fit in, he wanted to feel like he belonged,” said his father. “He really had no choice. … There are kids that are habitual cases where they are teased, bullied. They do stuff to them ... pour urine in a kid’s locker … and he didn’t want to be that kid.”

What happened next led to a lawsuit that has shined a light on the shrouded practices of one of the most celebrated high school football programs in America.

In a February brawl that was captured on two videos spanning 55 seconds, the smaller player, known in the lawsuit as Player One, was badly beaten with three powerful jabs to the head. The final one was a sucker punch. Player One suffered a traumatic brain injury, a broken nose that later required surgery and deep gashes around both eyes.

The family filed a lawsuit against Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange, alleging the Mater Dei administration covered up the incident. When the lawsuit was made public last week, the Santa Ana school of 2,149 students found itself in the middle of public outcry that elicited the school president’s bold promise of an independent investigation, a public explanation from the Orange County district attorney about his failure to press charges and a statement from the California Interscholastic Federation abdicating oversight.

“The CIF condemns hazing and maintains that such conduct has no place in the educational setting,” a statement from the federation overseeing high school athletics read. “... On-campus student misconduct involving a violation of a school’s code of conduct and/or State law falls within the responsibility of the school’s administration to investigate and address."

Seemingly everybody had chimed in except the people most closely involved.

Then this week, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, the parents of Player One spoke out.

“Willingness has nothing to do with being hazed, you can be willing and be hazed. I pledged a fraternity and the things I allowed them to do to me still was hazing. I did it willfully because I wanted to belong.”

Father of Player One, who has sued Mater Dei High School

They didn’t want their son to endure the added stress of an interview, and they insisted on anonymity to continue protecting their son’s identity, but in a 90-minute conversation they shared their feelings about an experience they say forever changed their lives.

Ten months after the fight, with their son long since having left Mater Dei and with virtually all their once-strong Mater Dei connections severed — “We didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, we helped make the Kool-Aid,” said the father — they are left with a deep sadness that the words in a legal document cannot fully portray.

“You drop your kids off at school and give them a kiss goodbye … and you feel like you’re putting them somewhere they can be safe. … I felt like Mater Dei had the highest protection, I felt my kid would be safe there,” said his mother. “Then for them to turn a blind eye and be so unsupervised. ... It’s like, you failed my child.”

His father talked solemnly about weeping when he saw his son’s battered face after the fight. His mother talked tearfully about staying up all night while applying ice to her son’s bruised head.

His father talked angrily about being ignored or dismissed by Mater Dei officials during his quest for transparency and accountability. His mother talked mournfully about feeling abandoned by the self-proclaimed “community built on Catholic fellowship.”

“It wasn’t just the fight, it wasn’t just that they didn’t call the paramedics, it wasn’t just that they didn’t call us, it wasn’t just that people ... changed stories and did all these other manipulative things and tinkered with his CIF transfer,” said his father. “It’s the totality of it all … I told them, you’re a shame to the Catholic organization.”

The Times sent a Mater Dei spokeswoman detailed questions about the parents' statements and she declined interview requests, instead providing the following statement:

"We are aware of the allegations in the present lawsuit. An internal investigation is being conducted by an outside law firm to look into school safety practices, particularly in our athletic program. Regarding the pending litigation, we are confident that the facts will emerge and speak for themselves. Mater Dei does not believe there is merit to the claims made in the lawsuit."

For Player One’s parents, it is also a human matter. Hearing their pain makes clear that what is now a full-blown school crisis could have been mitigated if the school had responded differently to the family's concerns.

“My son’s face looked like Larry Holmes after 15 rounds. My kid was beat to hell.”

Father of Player One, who filed a hazing lawsuit against Mater Dei High School

The family stated in the lawsuit it only received calls of sympathy after the father phoned the school and demanded someone show some compassion for their son. Principal Frances Clare never called, the family said.

Their bruising journey began with the brutality of the fight. The parents said they weren’t informed that their son had been injured until nearly 90 minutes after the Thursday afternoon brawl. They were told to come to the school and pick up Player One because he had hit his head on a sink. That was what Player One initially told officials after being warned by teammates not to snitch.

The minute his father saw his son sitting on a training table under an outdoor tent, he knew the sink story was a lie.

“My son’s face looked like Larry Holmes after 15 rounds,” he said. “My kid was beat to hell.”

The father said he immediately confronted trainer Kevin Anderson and asked why paramedics had not been summoned for injuries that appeared so serious. He said Anderson wouldn’t answer. The family claimed in a lawsuit "on information and belief" that five days later, Anderson called to say he had been ordered by an unnamed official to not call paramedics.

The Times sent questions for Anderson to a Mater Dei spokesperson and the school declined to comment beyond the general statement.

“They have no right to gamble with my son’s life,” said his father.

His father angrily escorted his son to their car and rushed him to an urgent care facility where a doctor initially diagnosed him with the head injury and fractured nose. By then, his son had acknowledged he had been hurt playing “Bodies.” It was his attempt to gain acceptance on a team he had just joined on a whim the previous spring, in a sport he had only played for one year in elementary school.

“He had never been in a fight in his life,” said his father. “I don’t think he had ever been in a loud argument.”

Player Two was not made available for comment, but the father of Player Two responded to the allegations through his attorney David Nisson.

“The father thinks it’s unfortunate it happened, he wishes it never happened, it’s always unfortunate when someone gets hurt,” Nisson said. “But he said there’s absolutely no evidence of hazing in this case or in the program, this is the first he’s heard of urine being tossed or anyone being hazed.”

The day after the fight, the father of Player One sent two emails to Bruce Rollinson, and he said the legendary coach finally called him and acknowledged the existence of “Bodies” and said he was “in a bind” with disciplining the bigger kid because his father was involved in the coaching staff, an interaction described in the family’s lawsuit against Mater Dei.

“Two things irked us about that call,” said the father. “The coach acknowledged the game. And because of the other kid’s father, the coach was in a bind?”

Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson looks on before a game against Duncanville, Texas, in August.
Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson looks on before a game against Duncanville, Texas, in August. (Jerome Miron / For The Times)

Rollinson has declined multiple Times requests for comment, including an in-person inquiry after Mater Dei won a Division 1 championship game on Nov. 26.

Responding to the charge that Rollinson was “in a bind” when disciplining Player Two because of his father’s affiliation with the program, “The father said Player Two was suspended for a minimum of two weeks, so there was no conflict,” his attorney told The Times.

As for allegations of a cover-up, “The father said they did an extremely thorough investigation, there’s no evidence of a cover-up,” Nisson said.

The parents of Player One said Tim O’Hara, Mater Dei dean of students and an assistant football coach, told them administrators decided Player One would be suspended one day for fighting, according to the lawsuit. When the father loudly protested, O’Hara later called back and said the punishment had been changed to an “Assistant Principal’s Contract” in which the student is placed on what the student handbook refers to as, “Discipline Probation.”

“I said, ‘Let’s have a meeting,’’’ recalled the father.

The father said the meeting, which occurred the following Monday morning at the school, lasted only minutes. The father said he was incensed when administrators immediately started talking about the "Assistant Principal’s Contract."

“I told them, ‘You guys continue to miss that mark over and over and over. Literally, this meeting is now done … I’m going to Santa Ana Police Department because you guys have proven you’re not going to be able to handle this,’” the father said.

At the time, their son wasn’t doing great. The traumatic brain injury had initially left him with slurred speech and limited memory, and he was facing an hourlong reconstructive nose surgery.

“I told the police, ‘My son was assaulted at the school, the school was not being cooperative, and we feel like a crime was committed,’” said the father.

The father said Santa Ana police recommended filing felony battery charges, but the Orange County District Attorney’s office declined because it deemed the fight as mutual combat.

“There is not a single shred of evidence to show that this was anything other than a mutual combat situation with two willing participants,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer said in a statement explaining his decision. “... At this point, there is no evidence of hazing or any other crime that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The parents of Player One understood Spitzer’s position but were disappointed in the assertion that because their son was throwing punches, he was not being hazed.

“Willingness has nothing to do with being hazed, you can be willing and be hazed,” said the father. “I pledged a fraternity and the things I allowed them to do to me still was hazing. I did it willfully because I wanted to belong.”

Also released this week was an open letter from Mater Dei's president, Father Walter Jenkins, in which he pledged a full independent investigation.

“Mater Dei High School will engage an outside and independent firm to investigate student safety practices specifically within our athletic programs,” the statement read.

The parents of Player One are not convinced.

“If they’re sincere about it, this is part of the corrective actions we’re looking for,” said the father. “But it’s a little disingenuous to think that all the participants that are there currently could actually implement those changes.”

He said the family eventually decided to sue in hopes of effecting real changes in the school’s athletic culture.

“We sat at the dinner table and said, 'we could just move on and not try to implement change, but what if this happens again?' Something similar or worse?” said the father. “Then we have to sit at this table and look at each other and say, ‘we could have done something and we didn’t. …We just don’t want this happening to another kid.' ”

Two weeks after the incident, Player One transferred to another school.

"You drop your kids off at school and give them a kiss goodbye … and you feel like you’re putting them somewhere they can be safe. … I felt like Mater Dei had the highest protection, I felt my kid would be safe there. Then for them to turn a blind eye and be so unsupervised. ... It’s like, you failed my child.”

The mother of Player One, who filed a lawsuit against Mater Dei High School

But they said Mater Dei wasn’t done with them yet. When Player One tried to join one of new school’s athletic teams, the parents were informed that Mater Dei had placed a disciplinary restriction on his file that prevented him from playing sports at his new school, according to the lawsuit. The restriction was eventually lifted after his new school’s principal intervened, but the message from Mater Dei was clear.

“For me, as a parent, that’s when I knew,” said Player One’s mother, weeping. “They wanted to mess with our family in a way I didn’t understand.”

Player One eventually became immersed in his new school’s athletic activities, including playing football this season. This became fodder for recent criticism on social media, with some people wondering why someone so physically and emotionally traumatized by a football locker room fight would still play that sport.

“Doctors have medically cleared him for everything,” said his father. “We were concerned about it but we want to support his decision to get back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”

A month after the fight, after the family said school officials had repeatedly told them there was no video, they were given a copy of the two videos from law enforcement.

The mother won’t watch them. The father tore apart his office when he watched them.

“I was throwing chairs, punching cabinets, screaming at the top of my lungs, I lost it,” he said, tears streaming down his cheeks at the memory. “That last punch…”

He was particularly enraged by a student using a racial epithet while urging Player Two to attack his son in a video viewed by The Times.

“Get that [N-word,]” the student roars at Player One, who is white. “Get that [N-word] ... Get that [N-word] ... Get that [N-word] ... Get that [N-word]."

The father of Player One said the words still live in his mind, an eternal soundtrack to an episode that will haunt him forever.

“It’s nasty, it's evil and angry and hateful,” said the father. “Where is the supervision? Where is the culture?”

As the storm clouds build around Mater Dei’s crisis of character, those are all questions yet unanswered.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.