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2 Canton McKinley football players speak out about teammate’s punishment: why they say it was unfair for 7 coaches to lose their jobs

Updated: Jun. 6, 2021 at 8:27 AM EDT
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CANTON, Ohio (WOIO) - Two McKinley High School football players are speaking out after the Canton City School District Board of Education, in a unanimous vote, fired seven football coaches. That includes head coach Marcus Wattley. It happened at a special meeting of the board on Thursday.

“What happened on May 24th was an ill-managed attempt to instill discipline in our students. The type of behavior that took place was inappropriate, divisive, and demeaning,” said Superintendent Jeff Talbert.

The controversy involving a player’s religious beliefs and what was supposed to be a punishment rocked the community.

McKinley freshmen Shawn Pirolozzi, a safety for McKinley’s football team, says he feels betrayed and disappointed that men he looked up to and trusted were fired.

“Some of these players had crazy bonds with these coaches, and it’s just crazy to see what happened,” he said.

Timothy Gatlin, who plays defensive end and tight end for the team, said the firings are devastating.

“They were like father figures to us,” Gatlin said.

The two players, along with several other team members, were upset they could not make a public comment about what happened at a public meeting.

“We felt like it wasn’t fair,” said Pirolozzi. “A lot of false information was put out there.”

At issue, the accusation that the coaches forced a 17-year-old student-athlete to violate the tenets of his religion by eating pepperoni pizza as punishment for missing practice. The student and his family are Hebrew Israelite and keep kosher, meaning they don’t eat pork, according to their attorney.

But at least two of the student’s team members say they don’t feel the 17-year-old was forced to do anything.

“He wasn’t forced to eat anything. They told him to eat the pizza and when he said that he couldn’t eat pork the coach was like okay. The coach sent another coach off to get chicken nuggets. And then that’s when the player started picking off the pepperoni and eating it himself. So, it was his choice to eat the pizza,” Gatlin said.

“They [the coaches] said the players will do the exercises until you finish the food because you think you’re better,” said Pirolozzi. “It was more like you’re being selfish. You think you’re better than the team, and we’re all one.”

When asked if the 17-year-old student-athlete may have felt pressured because his teammates were having to do drills until he finished eating, Pirolozzi said he could understand that.

“I can see that in some ways yes. But again, he could have got up at any time, and I’m pretty sure if he would have left the situation the coaches were not going to keep making us do the drills,” he said.

The firings come less than 90 days before the football team’s first game. The athletic director and McKinley graduate Antonio Hall steps in as the new interim head coach to carry the ball for the powerhouse team. But the players say the distraction this has caused is something they don’t need.

“It’s just a lot of adversity. I feel like we’ve just got to shut it out and focus on week one with Mentor and just do what we were supposed to do,” Pirolozzi said.

A school surveillance video of the incident has been handed over to the Canton Police for an investigation into possible hazing.

The student at the center of the controversy is considering transferring, and his parents are considering a lawsuit against the school district.

On Monday, the seven coaches who were fired from their coaching positions could also face discipline with their day jobs at the district.

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