A local youth league football coach spent Wednesday morning in court trying to keep his team in the regional playoffs.
Coach Kirby Gordon hopes to receive a restraining order against the Central Coast Youth Football League (CCYFL) that would stall senior-level playoff games unless the SLO Senior Tigers are allowed to participate.
The Tigers were disqualified from playing when it was discovered that their 14-year-old running back was playing under a falsified birth certificate.
Gordon believes the punishment placed on the 23 other team members was unfair and unnecessarily harsh. The Tigers have the support of community members and even their toughest competition, the 5 Cities Eagles, who wrote a letter in defense of their opponents and welcomed a rematch with the remaining players.
But league officials claimed the penalty fits the crime and were unwilling to back down from their decision.
The CCYFL, comprised of 78 teams from Lompoc to Paso Robles, has clear age and weight restrictions for each of its four divisions. Players on the senior level must be under 15 years of age by Dec. 1 and they can't weigh more than 200 lbs. They present birth certificates, progress reports, and signed physician and parental releases in order to qualify. Any violation of these rules may subject an individual player or a team to certain penalties, including disqualification from championship games.
As it turns out, one 135-lb. Tiger was 11 weeks too old for the senior division. According to Gordon, the boy's parents could have petitioned for a league waiver. Instead, they altered his birth certificate, a fact that didn't come to Gordon's attention until it was too late.
"The news was unbelievable," said Gordon during a recent phone conversation. "I was devastated." Gordon said that fraudulent actions taken by parents in order for their child to gain a competitive advantage was the "worst aspect of youth sports." Adding insult to injury, the boy's father was an assistant coach for the team.
The SLO Tigers are one of two undefeated teams in the league. They've trained together since August for several hours every week, with the help of parents and volunteer coaches. Under Gordon's coaching, many of the team members had moved up from the Junior-level team. At the time of the suspension, they were preparing to go to the playoff games with hopes of making it to the Superbowl on Nov. 19.
Gordon said the hardest thing for him to accept is that Templeton coach Bear McGill, who eventually went to Thompson with the complaint, may have known about this problem as early as Sept. 3. Had the information surfaced earlier, suggested Gordon, the Board might have eliminated the older boy from the team, allowing the Tigers to advance through the season without him. He believes that withholding the information may have helped the Templeton team by forcing the champion Tigers completely out of the competition. McGill refused to comment for this article.
But league president Zonk Thompson denies the charge, saying that Gordon's frustration has more to do with a "lust for glory and for the win" and that the older boy, who scored many of the team's touchdowns, was the "main reason Kirby's team was winning." He was unbending in the board's decision to eliminate the team from the playoffs, stating that the entire team, by allowing the older boy to play with them, had to suffer the consequences.
He admitted that the father's role as assistant coach "was a big issue" that affected the board's decision, and insisted that "rules are rules." Last year, Thompson noted, a player who was caught falsifying
his weight caused his team to forfeit a game, though further punishment was not deemed necessary.
"I'm sorry their boys didn't get to the playoffs," Thompson said, "but it wouldn't be fair to the kids on the other teams."
When asked whether the older boy had given the team an unfair advantage, Gordon replied, "My record with almost all these same boys was 40 and 2 over the last four years." Don Clegg, a team parent whose son has been coached by Gordon for two seasons, agreed. The boy wasn't noticeably bigger or even better than other players, and at 135 lbs., he was far below the weight restrictions.
Rick Clark, head coach for Coast Union High's football team and member of North Coast Youth Football, said though 98 percent of the parents and kids who participate in youth sports follow the rules, there is always a handful who "take the whole thing too seriously, and that affects the game for everyone."
Though he feels betrayed by his assistant coach, Gordon refuses to blame the boy for his father's indiscretions. When asked about the identity of the boy and his parent, Gordon said he didn't think it was "productive to give out the boy's name," and that "getting back at the father would only hurt the son."
Gordon said he treats the hundreds of kids he's coached over the years as family, and he feels the same commitment toward this boy.
Zonk Thompson didn't show up for the Court ruling Wednesday. County Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet was reluctant to make a decision in his absence and rescheduled a meeting for Thursday morning. Gordon, an attorney, feels confident that if Thompson fails to attend this second meeting, the judge will rule in his favor and the Tigers will be given the opportunity to prove their worth as a winning team. Still, there's no guarantee.
"Even if it doesn't work," said Gordon, "I'll always know I tried."
New Times contributor Alice Moss never fumbles the ball. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.