Mater Dei High School head coach Bruce Rollinson stood near a statue of the Virgin Mary in the school’s grotto, a short walk from the football field Thursday morning.
Four Monarchs players had just led parents, alumni and fans in part of a Rosary at the end of a morning that had been both prayerful and profane, part football practice, part pep rally punctuated with talk of the values of the nationally top-ranked football program and a school whose motto is “Hope, Glory, Love.”
Mater Dei was a day away from a CIF Southern Section Division I championship game showdown with Servite and a shot at a third national title in five years. But a game that had sold out within a matter of hours this week will played against the backdrop of growing calls for Rollinson’s and Mater Dei principal Frances Clare’s firings following an Orange County Register report detailing the coach and school’s handling of a violent hazing incident earlier this year.
A current Mater Dei player punched a teammate, 50 pounds lighter than him, three times in the face during a hazing ritual called Bodies on Feb. 4 while other Monarchs players shouted racial epithets at the smaller player, according to two videos of the altercation obtained by the Register.
The Register is not identifying the players because of their ages.
The smaller athlete, Player 1, suffered a traumatic head injury, a broken nose and wounds above each eye, according to medical records. The Santa Ana Police Department recommended the larger player, Player 2, be prosecuted for felony battery, according to a police report. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office does not intend to file charges in the case.
The player’s family filed a lawsuit against Mater Dei High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
“If I had a hundred dollars for every time these kids played Bodies or Slappies, I’d be a millionaire,” Rollinson told the injured player’s father the day after the altercation, according to a court filing.
But Rollinson said during an April interview with a Santa Ana Police Department investigator that the interview was “the first time he has heard of any of his players participating in the ‘Bodies’ game where participants punch each other until someone quits,” according to a police report.
Now standing in front of a statue of Mary, described only moments earlier by he and his team as “the holy mother of victory,” Rollinson was asked if Bodies and the actions revealed on the Feb. 4 videos measured up to Mater Dei’s values?
At first Rollinson stared straight ahead, silent.
“I’m not going to make any comments at this time,” he finally said. “So we’re just going to stand here forever.”
Are you concerned about your job? Rollinson was asked.
“I have no comment,” he said. “There’s an investigation.”
Did he lie to the police?
“There’s no comment,” Rollinson said. “I have, it’s under investigation.”
Earlier in the week, Rollinson on social media had called on former Mater Dei players to attend Thursday morning’s practice.
“You understand the importance that this day has on our team and you know how important the brotherhood is to me. I need you there. No excuses. Just be there,” Rollinson was quoted on the Mater Dei football program’s Twitter page.
One by one around 100 former players walked up to the current team assembled and kneeling after Thursday’s practice, hugged Rollinson, introduced themselves, stated the the year they graduated and wished the team good luck against Servite, often in terms accentuated with expletives.
Rollinson – with the players, current and former, parents, small children dressed in red Mater Dei jerseys and t-shirts looking on – talked about the Monarchs family and its traditions.
But two videos of the Feb. 4 altercation, police reports, surgery and other medical records, Mater Dei records, interviews and court filings obtained by the Register raise questions about the Monarchs program’s purported image of family and the values of the largest coeducational Roman Catholic high school west of the Mississippi River
During a conversation with Player 1’s father, Rollinson told the parent that he was in a “bind” in terms of disciplining the other player because he said his father was one of the team’s volunteer coaches, according to a court filing.
Player 1’s family’s lawsuit alleges negligence, negligence per se-hazing in violation of the California penal code, negligent failure to warn, train or educate, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Mater Dei trainer Kevin Anderson, after seeing Player 1’s injuries, “spoke with the administrative staff at Mater Dei who told him not to call the paramedics and to delay contacting (Player 1’s) parents,” according to a court filing. Anderson, despite seeing the severity of Player 1’s injuries, did not immediately treat the player and instead continued taping other players’ ankles for practice, according to a court filing.
Mater Dei officials initially declined to cooperate with Santa Ana Police Department investigators, according to police reports. Rollinson and Kevin Kiernan, the school’s athletic director, finally agreed to be interviewed by a Santa Ana Police Department investigator with Mater Dei assistant principal for student services Miguel Gutierrez present on April 21, more than two months after the altercation and when the Santa Ana PD first requested information from the school, according to police reports.
During his interview with the Santa Ana PD, Rollinson said “we have no hazing on our program. Never have, never will. I’ve been head for 32 years. Honestly, I’ve never even heard the word hazing used since 1989.”
In a letter to Mater Dei parents and students Wednesday, school president Walter Jenkins asked “for your faith and trust as we navigate the process ahead, and kindly request that you respect the privacy and dignity of all involved.”
On a sun-drenched Thursday morning, dozens of Mater Dei’s former players literally stood behind Rollinson.
“We’re excited,” Rollinson told the parents, players and fans surrounding him on the field before he introduced a prayer and then walked with the group to the grotto for more prayers. “We had a great practice. We are prepared. We know what we have to do. Our focus is not just on Servite. Our focus is to win the championship tomorrow night. That is the only thing that we care about and we will take care of business and we will lift that plaque high tomorrow night.
“All right, let’s bow our heads.”