News of the nine players who quit the East Peoria Community High School’s varsity football team has spread all the way to Arizona.
Last week, East Peoria resident Don Bell spoke with Curley Boo Johnson of Harlem Globetrotter fame.
Johnson, who lives in Arizona, is friends with the family of star football player Michael Thompson who was kicked off the football team.
Bell said he connected with Johnson over posts on Facebook and that things “don’t seem to add up when scholarships are on the line.”
Bell, who owns the East Peoria Jewelry and Trade, said a lot of students come to his store and “spill their guts.”
“I’m like the bartender down here. I have a lot of high school kids who come in all the time buying games and stuff like that. I have like a little Raider shrine down here,” he said.
Bell said he was told by students that the situation began to unravel when Thompson, the star running back, injured his finger during the season.
“I guess the coach never even contacted Michael when he was in the hospital and his feelings were kind of hurt. He was the star player and he gets hurt and he’s nobody. He’s expendable,” Bell said.
Johnson’s post on Facebook reads in part, “When a new coach comes in and divides a community, a team, a school, and as result tears down long friendships and sidetracks the career of my friend’s son then I have to blast the powers that be!
“Michael Thompson is an outstanding young man who is the schools all-time leading rusher and A student and one of the captains of a promising team and the coach resents him because he chooses to follow his doctor’s advice and have surgery on (a) severely broken finger instead of wearing a splint. He is cleared to play and then kicked off the team and now 11 total seniors have quit mostly in support of Michael but for unfair treatment.”
Damien Cruse, whose son Jordan quit the team, said the biggest frustration is that no one knows why Thompson was kicked off the team.
“The school’s not giving a reason why. That’s been the whole big issue ... He really didn’t do anything except speak up and address that some of the players are not being treated properly,” Cruse said.
Cruse said he was told that coach Josh Johnson allegedly called the players curse words.
“The coach wasn’t building them up. ... (He was) calling them names and breaking them down,” Cruse said.
Cruse has coached JFL and his son has played football since he was 7.
“He came to me the night before (he quit the team). He’s never quit anything in his life. He said some of the kids and him were talking and were going to try to talk to the coach,” Cruse said.
Page 2 of 3 - The next day the coach was an hour late to the meeting, he said.
“They were going to ask questions about Michael. He got real defensive and started yelling. One of the students stood up and said I’m not playing another game for you and others followed suit,” Cruse said.
Cruse said although he doesn’t condone quitting, he respects his son’s decision.
“He’s a straight A student. But I told him if he quit, I’d support him. I’m proud of him for taking a stand. ... They quit for good reasons,” Cruse said.
Cruse said Thompson spends time at their home and is friends with their son.
“The coach was upset with Michael at the beginning of the year, the kind of player he is, he is a game changer, he’s a phenomenal player. Michael followed his doctor’s orders instead of the coach’s. He’s looking at it as a long-term thing,” Cruse said.
Cruse spoke to the EPCHS school board Oct. 21.
“At this point, the school board said they are putting together the facts and will make a decision from that,” Cruse said. “They really left it kind of vague. So there’s really no answers. We want to know if Michael really did something wrong to be kicked off. We’re close with the Thompson family. It’s frustrating for a lot of parents whose kids are younger and up and coming. I think I’m speaking for all parents. We would just like some answers.”
Regarding the other players who left the team, Cruse said they are not trouble makers.
“They are A and B students. ... They don’t just up and quit for no reason. It’s not let’s band together and cause a riot. It’s not like that at all,” he said.
Bell said the players who quit the team were at a recent football game supporting the team. Bell said the students were sitting behind him and were not acting disrespectful in any way.
Cruse said the students have been called “quitters” by other team members and have even been hassled by some parents.
“Parents of kids on the team have said, ‘Why are you guys even here? (at the game). They still feel like they’re part of the Raider Nation. They’ve been in sports since they were kids. I think it’s ridiculous, especially for adults.”
Cruse said his son is applying to colleges this week.
“He’s already been taken off the list. It’s like he didn’t play at all his senior year. It’s tough. The boys thought about that before they made the decision,” he said.
Page 3 of 3 - “They took a stand bigger than football and I think that shows character. It’s sad to see. These kids on these sports teams dedicate hours and hours. They give up their whole summers and to see this happen, it’s just sad,” Cruse said.
District 309 Superintendent Chuck Nagel said the school board continues to look into the situation.
“We’re continuing to investigate the allegations we’ve gotten. I respect each of the young men for the decision they made and we’re continuing to look at what has occurred,” Nagel said.
Nagel and athletic director Brad Dubois has met with those who left the team as well as several of the players who are still on the team.