Knute Rockne wouldn’t have done it, but then Knute Rockne wasn’t coaching a bunch of high school kids. Three weeks ago ex-Ranger Jim Walsh, 49, coach of the George Washington High School football team in New York City, pulled his players off the field before the kickoff in his season opener with Lehman High and forfeited the game, 1-0. The reason, he said, was that the other team was too big and there was risk of serious injury to his players. For refusing to play, the coach was suspended last week, and George Washington’s season ended before it began.
Walsh’s act brought into the open a long-smoldering dispute: Who should judge whether high school football players are dangerously overmatched—their coach or citywide school administrators?
Walsh’s problem began three years ago when GW, for two years division champion in the city’s “B” league, was elevated to the tougher “A” division. Even before the team had lost all eight games and suffered numerous injuries, GW’s principal, with Walsh’s backing, began a letter campaign to the education authorities to get his boys restored to “B.” Last year in a 19 to 6 loss to JFK High, Sexto Benitez, 19, a 160-pound fullback/linebacker for George Washington, suffered a broken neck, an injury for which his family is suing New York City for $20 million. At the principal’s urging, the school board excused the depleted team from its next game with big Clinton High, but again rejected pleas to return it to the “B” division. This year Walsh decided to act. “The kids would have played Nebraska if I’d asked them to,” he said of his gutsy 26-man squad. “But somebody had to make a mature decision. I asked the seniors and they wanted to play. But when I asked them if the team was prepared to play, they said no.”
“It showed he cared—he’s like a father to us,” says QB Eliseo Trinidad. “But we’re sad. It has all gone down the drain.”
John Glading, director of the Public School Athletic League, plays down Benitez’ broken neck as “a football injury—if you play football, injury is a factor; it’s part of the game.” Says Robert Mastruzzi, the superintendent of public schools who suspended Walsh: “I believe Jim Walsh is sincere but there are knowledgeable people who disagree with him. I used to think George Washington should be in the ‘B’ league, but I don’t support the forfeiture. It was an insubordinate act.”
Walsh’s insubordination is picking up support from at least two other coaches in the “A” division. One is agonizing over whether to follow Walsh’s example if his players get hurt in a lopsided game, and Evander Childs’ Sy Kalman last week was distraught after his team got shellacked by Clinton 38-0. “It was the worst day of my entire life,” he said. “It was like watching your kid drown. I told my wife to never again let me coach after this season. I can’t take it anymore.”