640AM Keith Sharon interview http://www.kfiam640.com/player/?station=KFI-AM&program_name=podcast&program_id=JohnandKen.xml&mid=22474893 – Sharon describes how he uncovered the story. Seven families come forward.
Four months before the world heard about the New Orleans Saints‘ bounty scandal, two Pop Warner football coaches in Tustin began offering cash to their 10- and 11-year-old players for making big hits and knocking opponents out of games, according to an assistant coach, a parent, interviews with players and signed statements by two players.
Tustin Red Cobras head coach Darren Crawford and assistant coach Richard Bowman, whose powerhouse squad went undefeated during the 2011 regular season, told their team to target specific players on the youth football teams from Yorba Linda, Santa Margarita and San Bernardino, said then-assistant coach John Zanelli and three players interviewed by the Register.
All the other coaches and Tustin Pop Warner league officials deny a bounty program took place. Crawford said they did target opposing players but never told their team to injure them and never offered any payment for hitting or injuring them.
One of the targeted players, an 11-year-old running back from the Santa Margarita Stallions, suffered a concussion after he was hit by a Red Cobras player in the Pop Warner Orange Bowl last November. The player who delivered the hit was paid by Crawford after the game, Zanelli said.
The Register is not naming any of the players because of their ages.
Tustin league president Pat Galentine, who was an assistant coach for the 2011 Red Cobras, emphatically denied any mention of money by Crawford or Bowman.
“At no time was a bounty program ever discussed or was there an exchange of money for anything,” Galentine said.
However, the parent of one of the Red Cobras players said money was paid to his son after the playoff game against Yorba Linda.
“My son said he had won the prize,” said the father, whose name is not being used to protect the identity of his son. “He had a good, clean hit. The kids voted his play as the play of the game. He showed me one $20 bill. He said the coaches, plural, gave it to him.”
That parent said he had told Galentine about his son receiving money in a phone call Friday morning. But when reached by The Register, Galentine said he was having difficulty with his phone and didn’t hear what the parent said.
Reached by phone this week, Crawford and Bowman denied the existence of a bounty program. Crawford, still a football coach in the Tustin Pop Warner program, said the parents who made the allegations are “disgruntled” and that they forced their children to lie. Bowman, who is taking a year off from coaching, said the parents and players are lying.
“It’s amazing what disgruntled parents will put their kids through,” Crawford said.
Late Friday, Crawford said he is having trouble remembering whether he gave any player money after the Yorba Linda game. He said, “Maybe I did give him money to go to the snack bar.” But he was sure he didn’t give any money as a part of a bounty program.
Crawford said he knows for sure he did not give any player money after the Santa Margarita or San Bernardino games.
Officials from the, which oversees Pop Warner football in this region, investigated the allegations, interviewing coaches, parents and players from the Red Cobras and decided not to hand out any punishments or sanctions.
O.E.C. commissioner Robert T. “Bobby” Espinosa said he found “no evidence” of a bounty program after hearing and reading statements from six parents and four players that alleged Crawford and Bowman offered between $20 and $50 during three playoff games at the end of the 2011 Junior Pee Wee football season.
Two players who allegedly took money from the coaches did not agree to be interviewed by the O.E.C. The father of one of those players, the same father who told The Register his son had been paid, was among the parents interviewed by Espinosa. Zanelli said he was in the room when that father told Espinosa his son had been paid.
Some parents of the targeted players are outraged.
Tara Yocam, the mother of a targeted Santa Margarita player, said, “The (Tustin) coaches’ behavior is appalling. I wouldn’t allow my son to play for those Neanderthals. They’re low-lifes. I’m embarrassed for them. It’s immature parenting, trying to win at all cost. Where is the sense of right and wrong? It shows a complete lack of integrity.”
Bitterness, accusations and bad blood are not uncommon in Pop Warner football, or other youth sports. In Tustin, both Bowman and Zanelli (who are on opposite sides of the bounty allegations) acknowledge each of them was suspended by their league for confrontations they’ve had with other parents.
Allegations that coaches paid children to knock others out of the game make this case unique.
An official at Pop Warner’s national office in Pennsylvania said he was made aware of the Tustin allegations, but because the incidents occurred at Southern California games, it was the O.E.C.,’s responsibility to conduct a hearing and hand out punishment if necessary.
Josh Pruce, Pop Warner’s national director of scholastics and media relations, said he can’t remember a bounty scandal ever happening in their program.
“There shouldn’t be that issue in Pop Warner football,” Pruce said. “There is no place for it. The kids are out there to learn football. There is no place for a bounty system.”
Zanelli, three players and two parents met with The Register last Sunday and offered detailed descriptions of the Red Cobras’ bounty program.
They said Crawford was stung by his team’s loss to Saddleback Valley in the 2010 Pop Warner Orange Bowl, and was determined to win the Pop Warner Orange Bowl in the 2011 season, advance through the playoffs and win the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Florida.
Zanelli and two of the players said the first mention of money came during a team huddle near the end of football practice on Monday, Oct. 24, 2011.
When Crawford first mentioned he would pay money for big hits and knocking opponents out of games, many of the Tustin Red Cobras shouted excitedly, energized by the prospect of earning cash, the players said.
“We were like, ‘OK! We’re going to go hit them! Wow!’” one player said. A second player said, “When we were after practice, getting our gear off, we were guessing who was going to get the money.”
That week the Red Cobras were preparing for their second playoff game of 2011. They would be facing a good team from Yorba Linda. During that week’s practice, Crawford told the players to target particular players on the Yorba Linda team.
“Crawford was saying, basically, they were going to give kids cash for the biggest hits in the game, and Bowman said if they hit certain players, they would get more money,” Zanelli said. “One was No. 42, and there were a couple of others as well.”
“As the practices went on that week, Bowman in particular would reiterate (the bounty program) to the kids time and again,” Zanelli said.
During an Oct. 27 film session at Crawford’s house, Crawford explained how the winners of the cash would be determined, three players said. Crawford told the team that they could all vote, and the player with the most votes would get money. Crawford told them the most money could be won if the opponents’ best player had to leave the game, they said.
Galentine, who said he attended every film session, said the coaches made no mention of money or bounties.
On game day, Oct. 29, the Red Cobras were going through their pre-game tackling drills. If a player executed a good warm-up hit, Bowman would yell, “‘That will get you money,’” a player said.
After the game, which the Red Cobras won 28-6, Zanelli and the players said Crawford gathered the team on the sideline and asked for a show of hands to vote for the best and second-best hits of the game.
Then Crawford asked the assistant coaches to pitch in to pay the players who won. Zanelli said he and another assistant coach did not contribute to the bounty fund.
“It wasn’t right,” Zanelli said.
Zanelli and one of the players said they saw Crawford, who was standing near the Tustin sideline after the conclusion of the Yorba Linda game, give cash to the player who got the most votes.
The players said they were caught up in the competitive spirit and didn’t consider whether it was right or wrong to accept money for great hits or even hurting an opposing player. One player said: “I was so excited, I didn’t think that much about it.”
The next week, before the playoff game against Santa Margarita, the Tustin coaches targeted at least three opposing players, Zanelli and the players said. At the Oct. 31 practice, the numbers of the Santa Margarita targets were taped to a Tustin tackling sled.
“It was a matter of knocking them out of the game,” one of the players said. “Now that I look back, I know it was wrong.”
The players said there was now so much talk among the Red Cobras about the money that Crawford told them, “Don’t go bragging about this to anybody.”
On Nov. 4, the Red Cobras played Santa Margarita in the Pop Warner Orange Bowl at Laguna Hills High School. The winner would be one victory away from qualifying to go to Florida.
In the days leading up to the game, Zanelli said he told Crawford he didn’t think the bounty program was a good idea. He said Crawford told him, “I hear you. I’ll talk to Rich (Bowman).” After that, Zanelli said, Bowman was more subdued during practice drills.
Still, Zanelli and the players said, several Santa Margarita players were targeted, including the quarterback and the running backs. And on game day, during pre-game warm-ups, Bowman tried to get the players fired up by yelling, “Do you want that money?”
Tustin had a 32-6 lead in the fourth quarter, but some of its best players were still in the game. On an off-tackle play, a Santa Margarita running back and a Tustin defender collided. It was so violent, Zanelli recalled, “There was a gasp from the crowd.”
A videotape of the game shows a helmet-to-helmet collision and the 11-year-old Santa Margarita player goes down. The stadium announcer says, “A big hit” with emphasis on big. The Santa Margarita player is seen lying on the ground. The Tustin player who made the hit tries to help him up, but the Santa Margarita player wobbles and falls again.
According to witnesses and participants, a doctor ran onto the field along with Santa Margarita coaches, and the game was delayed several minutes until the player was helped off the field.
Reggie Scales, the father of the injured player, was one of the coaches who went on the field to help. Scales said the doctor diagnosed his son with a mild concussion, and the boy did not return to the game. Scales said his son had headaches for more than a month after the hit.
“This kid speared him. Hit him right in the head,” Scales said. “It was a helmet-to-helmet hit.”
After the game, the Tustin players didn’t vote for the best hit. As coaches and kids walked to the post game awards ceremony, Zanelli said he saw Crawford give money directly to the player who made the game’s big hit. Another player said he was told by Crawford that he also would be receiving money for a big hit, but the coach never gave him the money.
Tustin now had to beat a San Bernardino team in the Wescon Regional Finals to determine the Junior Pee Wee champion for the western United States and the right to go to Florida. The bounty program became “more subdued, covert,” in the week leading up to that game, Zanelli said.
Zanelli and some players said that the talk of money was only between Crawford, Bowman and a few of the star players on the team. “They started concealing the program,” Zanelli said.
On Nov. 11, Tustin beat San Bernardino 34-0. Zanelli and the players interviewed said they didn’t know whether money was handed out after that game, but Zanelli said Crawford told the coaches there would be no such program in Florida.
On Dec. 4, the Tustin Red Cobras beat the Worchester (Mass.) Vikings 40-6. Then, in the semifinal game on Dec. 7, the Red Cobras were beaten by the Beacon House (Washington, D.C.) Falcons 12-8. Tustin’s season was over.
In the aftermath, Zanelli and six other parents from the Tustin team left Pop Warner and, with parents of 15 other boys, formed a team that now plays in a rival league. But not without a fight. The Tustin board wouldn’t allow Zanelli’s new team to play under the Tustin umbrella.
Jeff Wright, a Tustin board member, said he believes Zanelli, parents and players made up the story of the bounty program to use as leverage in an effort to force the league to allow them to form their own team.
Zanelli also took to the league allegations about the coaches falsifying the weights of the players (players were required to weigh just under 100 pounds at the end of the season) and the coaches fighting during their trip to Florida.
The league investigated and agreed with some of Zanelli’s allegations and suspended Bowman for half a season and put Crawford on probation.
For almost six months of haggling between the league and Zanelli, “He never mentioned the bounty,” Wright said.
Zanelli acknowledged that initially he kept quiet about the bounties. He said he felt bad that he, as an assistant coach, hadn’t done more to stop it. And he had another motivation for staying silent for as long as he did.
“I was concerned the bounty would bring down the entire Tustin organization,” Zanelli said.
Another reason for local sports reviews….