The players on the Christiana High School football team were going through a tumultuous week.
They played a game on Monday, then were scheduled to play again three days later. They were still upset by the suspensions handed down by the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association following a fight four weeks ago. And 90 minutes before their next game, they found out their head coach had been suspended.
So the Vikings left their campus well behind schedule on Thursday night. They rode five exits down Interstate 95 to Baynard Stadium, arriving just 10 minutes before their scheduled kickoff against Howard.
Then they forfeited.
“They were dressed in their uniforms, without their shoulder pads,” Howard coach Dan Ritter said. “They walked on the field, stretched, refused to put their shoulder pads on and said they were forfeiting the game.”
Christiana head coach Virgil Rush was not at the game. Reached by phone afterward, Rush said he had been suspended by the school earlier Thursday. Rush said he addressed the team at the school at about 5:30 p.m., but would not go into detail about what was said.
A phone message left for Christiana athletic director Jennifer Mayer was not returned.
A fight broke out Oct. 6 with 1:15 left in the half at Christiana, with A.I. leading 14-0. After the field was cleared, the officials decided to suspend the game. A DIAA subcommittee met, reviewed video and decided to suspend seven Christiana players and four A.I. players. for the next game. Submitted by Virgil Rush
Rush said he did not know why the Vikings forfeited. But he said the rulings regarding suspensions stemming from a fight during an Oct. 6 game against A.I. du Pont had frustrated the players.
“There’s really no other way to say it,” Rush said. “… Our kids are just tired. They’re tired of being mistreated.”
Rush emailed a video clip to The News Journal that shows an A.I. receiver running out of bounds, then being pushed by a Christiana defender 8 yards later.
A fight ensued involving players from both teams in the Christiana bench area.
The fight took about a minute to disperse, with coaches from both teams and officials working to separate the players. Officials huddled at midfield and decided to suspend the game, with A.I. leading 14-0 with 1:15 left in the first half.
The matter was referred to DIAA executive director Tommie Neubauer, who convened a subcommittee on Oct. 11 to review video. After that meeting, Neubauer confirmed that more than one player was suspended from each team, but would not give specific numbers.
Rush could not be reached for comment at the time, but A.I. head coach Zeb Blum confirmed that four Tigers players had been suspended. Later, Rush said seven Christiana players were suspended.
The fact more Vikings were suspended upset Rush and his players, who felt that many more A.I. players should have been suspended for leaving their team’s bench area.
In DIAA’s official handbook, sportsmanship rule 1007.2.3.2.1.1 states: “A player who leaves the team bench area and enters the playing field, court, or mat during a fight or other physical confrontation shall be ejected from the contest. Additional penalties may be imposed if a player leaving the bench area becomes involved in the altercation.”
In the video clip Rush shared, at least 17 A.I. players can be seen near the Christiana bench area shortly after the fight broke up. As the players continue to walk back across the field, at least 22 A.I. players can be seen over the boundary line, indicating that at least 11 players left the A.I. bench area during the fight.
Reached by phone Thursday night, Neubauer said, “The committee met and passed down the suspensions based on the report that was submitted by the officials and the video that was submitted. The committee reviewed the film repeatedly, and the actions of the committee were sent in writing to both schools.”
Neubauer said he was part of the subcommittee that issued the suspensions. Rush shared an email he sent to Neubauer on Oct. 19, asking specifically about the stated rule and why it did not come into play in the subcommittee’s decisions. He said he has yet to receive a response from Neubauer.
“The video clearly shows that the whole ruling was completely wrong,” Rush said. “… I think there needs to be some light shed on how we were treated throughout this process.”
When told that The News Journal had viewed a video clip that showed at least 22 A.I. players away from the team bench area, Neubauer said, “That may not have been a view that the committee saw. But the committee acted on the video that was provided to them.”
Three games in a week
The suspensions were just one issue. Christiana was also upset by the number of games it was scheduled to play in a short period of time.
The Vikings’ game against Glasgow last week was originally scheduled to be played on Saturday. When the weather forecast called for heavy rain and wind, the game was pushed up to Friday.
But then Rush said Christiana was told the Northern Delaware Football Officials Association didn’t have enough officials available on Friday, so the game was pushed to Monday.
Christiana defeated Glasgow 36-0 on Monday, then had just two days to prepare to play Howard. And for a time, the Vikings were scheduled to finish the game against A.I. next Monday.
Officials from the Blue Hen Conference, Christiana and A.I. du Pont had agreed to complete the suspended game. But once the Tigers defeated Howard on Oct. 20 in a showdown for the Blue Hen Flight B title, it was assumed that A.I. would finish the regular season with a 9-0 record, enough wins to award two bonus points to every team on the Tigers’ schedule for DIAA playoff purposes.
So Rush said the resumption of the A.I. game was canceled and it was ruled a no contest. He said the Vikings were willing to play, despite the taxing schedule. But now, he said the team views the cancellation as a sign that their game didn’t matter.
“We were going to play Monday, Thursday, Monday,” Rush said. “That was our schedule. Three games in one week.”
Even after the resumption was canceled, Rush was upset with playing two games in four days.
“Three games in seven days shouldn’t be allowed,” Rush said. “Even the Monday-Thursday turnaround we had, we couldn’t even put shoulder pads on them [during practice] this week. We were just walking through in helmets for two days.
“So to turn around and do that again? Even to schedule that, to me, is a little crazy. It is very, very unsafe.”
DIAA regulations limit varsity football teams to 10 games during the regular season, one game per week. But there can be exceptions.
“When weather causes a reschedule, the weekly limit does not have to be strictly adhered to,” Neubauer said.
Neubauer said DIAA member schools control scheduling of games in all sports during the regular season. He said he did not know Christiana officials had agreed to play three football games in an eight-day period.
“Replaying the [A.I. du Pont] game was controlled by the Blue Hen Conference,” Neubauer said. “No one ever asked my opinion, or the DIAA sports medicine advisory committee’s opinion. You’re giving me news that I was not aware of.”
On top of the other issues, between 1 and 2 p.m. Thursday, Rush said he received an email from Christiana officials stating that he was suspended from serving as the team’s head coach for the Howard game. He did not give the reason for the suspension.
“It was an internal matter within the school, so the school thought that a one-game suspension was appropriate,” Rush said. “I didn’t agree, but I did follow the school’s suspension.”
Rush said his mother died early Monday, and he attended her funeral service on Thursday afternoon. He said he addressed the team at about 5:30 p.m., and that is when they found out their head coach had been suspended.
Rush said he did not encourage the team to forfeit against Howard.
“With the season we’ve had, and the kind of relationship I have with my players, I’m sure that was the main reason for [the forfeit],” Rush said. “And we had another player suspended that the team didn’t agree with. So once again, our kids were tired of being mistreated.”
Rush is in his sixth season as the Vikings’ coach. Christiana football has struggled mightily over the previous eight seasons, compiling a 10-70 record. But the Vikings are showing signs of turning the corner this season.
A 14-12 win over Red Lion Christian on Oct. 19 was negated when it was determined that Christiana had used an ineligible player.
Even with that forfeit and another against Howard, the Vikings are 3-5. A win over McKean in the season finale on Nov. 10 could produce the first four-win season since 2009, when Christiana went 4-6.
“My guys fought hard. They’ve fought hard this season,” Rush said. “We only have three losses, one loss by two points, one loss by three points and another loss by 14. If you know anything about Christiana football, that’s not the norm.”
Rush said the Vikings’ last winning season came in 1999, his senior year as a player at the school.
Christiana experienced plenty of football success before that, winning a Division II state championship in 1977 and a Division I title in 1994. The Vikings also reached state finals in 1974 and 1991.
Among the stars the Christiana football program has produced is running back Dan Reeder, who went on to play at the University of Delaware and with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is the father of current UD standouts Troy and Colby Reeder.
Jamie Duncan, who spent seven years with three NFL teams as a linebacker from 1998-2004, also played at Christiana.
The players’ decision to forfeit Thursday night caught everyone by surprise. The Christiana band and cheerleaders were at the game, in uniform, but left slowly after the football players left.
“This is the first time an event like this has taken place with us,” said Howard’s Ritter, who is in his 18th season as a high school head coach. “… It’s a new experience for us.”
It was scheduled to be the final home game of the regular season for Howard, when the Wildcats honor their senior football players. After the forfeit was announced over the public address system, fans waited patiently for a refund of their $5 tickets.
“They’re disappointed,” Ritter said of his players. “Obviously, they’re ready to play a game. It’s supposed to be their senior night.”
The forfeit improves Howard’s record to 7-2.