The bright lights beaming down on the turf field below produce a metallic sheen on the players’ orange and blue jerseys. Pads crack as player meets player. Cleats rip through the field as the artificial turf offers an elastic resistance. Muscle fatigue opposes collective hope as kids push themselves to their limits in a Friday night football game.
For the football team, not much will change about the game itself next year. Footballs will still be footballs, and kids will still be kids.
But a presence will be gone from the practice field during the sweltering summer, from the locker room as players make their final preparations and from the sideline as effort culminates in competition.
High school administrators dismissed Sam Horrell as the head football coach of the Clayton Greyhounds on May 3. Three days later, . On May 18, a couple hundred members of the community attended a Clayton Board of Education meeting to show support for Horrell and promptly walked out when .
this winter at , a community rec center that also serves as the high school’s workout facility. The Center’s security cameras captured the sessions on video. At the time, Horrell instructed an after-school physical education class for the high school.
In mid-February, high school administrators discovered that eighth-grade students were participating in some of the after-school class activities. Their investigation eventually led Clayton High’s athletic director Bob Bone to self-report violations of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) by-laws on May 4, the day after Horrell was dismissed as head football coach.
Dr. Kerwin Urhan, the executive director of MSHSAA, responded to the self-report promptly. Clayton High had violated two MSHSAA by-laws, and the eighth-grade students involved were ineligible to compete in interscholastic competition for 365 days, pending the MSHSAA board meeting that will take place in just a couple of weeks.
Urhan’s letter did not suggest any action be taken against Horrell. Jason West, MSHSAA’s communications director, said that MSHSAA guidelines do not impose penalties upon coaches. Those decisions are entirely up to school districts.
But the threat of a negative MSHSAA ruling can affect how a district deals with its coaches. While West stressed that the actions of the MSHSAA board of directors are not entirely predictable, school responses to violations could very well be seen in a “positive” light during the board meeting on the issue.
In other words, Clayton’s internal response to the violations could go a long way toward restoring the eighth-grade students’ eligibility. That message must have been communicated to Clayton administrators given the fact that Horrell was dismissed before the self-report was officially sent.
Administrators levied the ultimate punishment a high school coach can receive when they dismissed Horrell.
But what had brought it all to this?
The answer lies with the high school administrators involved in the decision, especially Clayton High Principal Louise Losos.
“In the end, the decision (was) mine,” Losos said.
Losos said she was in contact with Urhan during the investigation to better understand the stakes involved. After consulting with Urhan, Losos determined that a self-report would be in the school’s best interest.
If the school did not report the violations, Losos said, the Clayton athletic program would be placed in a precarious position. If another school discovered and then reported Clayton’s violations to MSHSAA, it would likely be the deathblow to any Clayton season.
Clayton is no stranger to this seemingly unlikely situation. In 2003, all but one Clayton football victory was wiped off the record books after an external party reported on the residential ineligibility of the team’s star quarterback. I was a member of that team.
Losos was conscious of the 2003 outcome as she dealt with the most recent football fiasco. But her thinking was not only guided by caution. She also wanted to uphold the principles of the athletic program.
“We either have ethics and integrity or we don’t,” Losos said. There would be no attempt by the administration to sweep the violations under the rug.
With a self-report inevitable, administrators focused their attention on the well-being of the eighth-grade students. To give the students the best chance at regaining their eligibility, the school needed to show MSHSAA it had already taken steps to remedy the infractions. Without any official MSHSAA requirements, administrators had to determine what those steps would be.
“Did we have to remove (Horrell)? No, we didn’t have to,” Losos said. In all likelihood, Losos acknowledges, Horrell’s dismissal was not required to protect the eighth-grade students. Two other issues aside from the MSHSAA infractions also contributed to the personnel move.
The first was a previous warning given to Horrell during the 2009-10 academic year about middle school students’ involvement in prohibited activities. Bone, Clayton’s athletic director, mentioned the incident in the letter self-reporting the violations to MSHSAA, but the context was not included.
Even though Losos said the warning influenced the decision to dismiss Horrell, she did not know the circumstances under which the warning was given. Bone was not at liberty to discuss the details of the warning.
While publicly mentioned, the warning remains unexplained. Whatever the case was, at the time the warning was issued school administrators believed that “the evidence we had did not warrant a self report,” Bone wrote in an email.
If the warning was related to the MSHSAA infractions of this past year, it is odd that there appears to be no evidence that Horrell was inviting middle school students to the Center regularly. Two of Clayton High’s most recent graduates, Cody Peck and Anat Gross, both played football throughout high school. They regularly attended the after-school workouts during their offseasons.
Peck participated in some of the agility drills with the high school students when he was in eighth grade, along with a few of his friends. But during his time in high school, he had not seen an eighth-grade student work out alongside the high school students until this past winter.
Gross (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my sister) consistently participated in the after-school workout class during her junior year even though she was not enrolled. She does not remember seeing an eighth-grade student participate before this winter, and she did not remember seeing the middle school students participate in any of the class drills this year.
It does not appear that the warning given to Horrell was the result of long-term middle school student involvement in the after-school workouts.
A third factor played into Horrell’s dismissal aside from the recent MSHSAA violations and the warning, Losos said. But because of personnel privacy rights, Losos said, she felt prohibited from explaining this remaining factor.
This third factor may have transcended Horrell’s coaching responsibilities. Although Losos tried to keep Horrell’s coaching responsibilities separate from his teaching ones as she made her decision, she admitted that some of the issues did cross into both areas of his duties.
Then why was Horrell retained as a teacher?
Part of the reason was legal, Losos said. Missouri teaching positions come with more protections than coaching positions, primarily in the form of the Teacher Tenure Act. Losos said that Horrell needed to be notified by April 15 that his contract would not be renewed for the upcoming school year. The administrators’ investigation into Horrell did not conclude until early May.
Losos also said her attempt to view Horrell’s coaching and teaching responsibilities separately played a role in keeping him in the classroom.
In short, Horrell was not dismissed from coaching solely as a result of the MSHSAA violations. In all likelihood, MSHSAA would have ruled in favor of restoring the eighth-grade students’ eligibility had the school taken less drastic action. It is a complex situation, one that requires a deliberate and clear explanation.
But to this day, school administrators have not made a statement to students, alumni or families that really makes their decision understandable, especially in light of Horrell’s reputation as an effective mentor. And the information that has been released only seemed to emerge in response to the drastic steps students and community members took to support Horrell.
Students had to stage a walkout before a letter was even sent home, and that one only to a small portion of the high school student body. Members of the community had to organize and protest once more at a school board meeting before the district released the self-report letter and MSHSAA’s response.
Administrators initially said little in part because they felt their hands were tied by the privacy rights involved in personnel decisions. Chris Tennill, the district’s chief communications officer, said that administrators were concerned with protecting Horrell’s rights as a staff member of the district. He said that he empathized with the Clayton community’s demand for more information but that the district must release details “in a way that doesn’t compromise any privacy issues.”
Eventually, details of this case were made public, but why they weren’t released earlier remains a mystery. Apart from the intensity of the response from students and the community, nothing in the case appeared to change.
Throughout the decision-making process and its aftermath, insufficient effort went into how the message would be communicated to the Clayton community. The investigation into the MSHSAA violations took place over a two-and-a-half month period. School administrators admittedly knew that any decision they reached regarding Horrell’s status would be critically viewed. But when it came time to self-report and dismiss Horrell, the district was unprepared for the inevitable backlash.
Granted, Horrell’s dismissal is not an easy one to explain. He was essentially fired from a job that he loves, a job that he used to touch the lives of countless Clayton students, because of a longstanding, unclear setup involving the gym facilities used by Clayton High. But as an institution that prides itself on teaching calculus and advanced physics courses, the district shouldn’t have had so much trouble explaining the factors involved in the dismissal of a football coach.
The story yet to be told explains the complexities of Clayton High’s relationship with the Center. Although it is a public facility open to everyone, the Center also serves as the high school’s gym.
To deal with its dual purpose, the Center maintains a schedule detailing when certain areas of their facilities are open to members. The schedule from this past winter shows that only one of the many basketball courts was open to “teen play” from 3 to 5 p.m. during the week. The remaining courts were off limits to general members because they were reserved for programs such as the after-school high school physical education class taught by Horrell.
But the Center schedule is rarely enforced. Members mingle with high school students regularly. Both enrolled and non-enrolled high school students participate in the after-school workout class. The class Horrell taught was often the center of attention, especially on days students ran through agility drills.
Horrell did not conduct football-specific training, and he didn’t provide the middle school students with individualized attention. A high school physical education teacher was encouraging kids to get active, to stay healthy, to make the right choices. And he was punished because of it.
Horrell’s side of the story may never come out. He has refused to speak publicly about the issue in an attempt to address his fate as professionally as possible.
Speaking out would not have helped Horrell. His football coaching position provided him with no way to appeal his dismissal. And when the MSHSAA board meets to determine the eligibility of the eighth-grade students involved, Horrell’s side will still be unrepresented. West said MSHSAA only accepts information provided to them from school representatives.
Once the administration made its decision, there was no possibility the dismissal would be reversed. Even if MSHSAA rules that Clayton High did not violate by-laws, the head coaching job will be someone else’s next year.
A head coaching change also took place in 2003 when Clayton High was ruled to have violated MSHSAA guidelines. And though the 2003 season ended in heartbreak, something from that year carried over into 2004.
We called it “The Truth.” At the end of our abbreviated season, each member of the football team received a small trophy of a football player with “The Truth” inscribed on its base. Throughout the MSHSAA mess of 2003, we all knew what we had accomplished.
We were undefeated.
In 2004, we became the first Clayton team ever to win a state championship in football. On the inside of our championship rings, etched ever so gently in flowing letters, are the words “The Truth.”
This year, the Clayton Greyhounds do not have the truth to carry them through. There is no ideal that can redeem the moment. The Truth was displaced by rumor. Greyhound Pride was transfigured from a defense of school tradition into a rebellion against the system. The leadership the community needed in a moment of acute vulnerability and uncertainty was nowhere to be found.
Inevitably, in the absence of strong leadership, the void was filled with the conclusive certainty reserved for tragedy.
Horrell’s tenure as Clayton head coach is over. A group of incoming freshmen are currently unable to play the game they love for a full year. The Clayton football program is adrift without a head coach. Scores of parents and students remain distrustful of the high school administration. The school board, though unable to do much of anything when it comes to Horrell’s football job, stands directly in the path of a frustrated constituency. As in 2003, the devastation is deep and its mark is indelible.
And while footballs will still be footballs and Clayton Greyhounds will still don the orange and blue next year, something other than Horrell will be missing.
The Truth from 2011 will remain buried, and with it the trust students should have in their school.
In 2003, we lost a season.
In 2011, Clayton lost itself.