- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
All around him now on this August afternoon, Max's teammates find ways to get out of running. Fast ones are dismissed for good effort. Freshmen are dismissed because they're freshmen. Some of the fat kids are barely running. The goof-offs are pulled out to do up-downs. Max is a slow runner, of course, so running hard doesn't make him stand out more. It makes him stand out less. It puts him closer to the middle of the pack. It ensures that he will run the maximum distance at maximum effort. And if he shows signs that something is wrong—if he vomits or falls to his knees or stands up only with the help of his teammates, as witnesses will later testify at the trial—Stinson doesn't notice. He's distracted by the jersey-wearing goof-offs who can't even do the up-downs right.
Max's temperature is rising to catastrophic levels, to 105º, 107º, perhaps 109º. The cells in his body are melting. And so, when his father sees him cross the finish line on the last sprint, fall on all fours, stand again, stagger and fall for the last time, there's no telling whether Max hears Stinson say the mystifying line that marks the end of practice. The Panthers have run until someone quit, and the quitter is not Max Gilpin. "DING, DING, DING!" the coach yells as David Englert quits once again. "WE HAVE A WINNER!"
Looking back on the practice two years later, the coach noticed a major coincidence. David Englert quit at nearly the precise moment that Max's group finished what was always going to be the last sprint. Neither event caused the other, Stinson said. He insisted that practice would have ended regardless, because everyone knew that the activity bus was on a fixed schedule and many of the boys had to ride it home.
Then, more coincidences. The coach wasn't looking when Max collapsed. Nor did he notice anything was wrong when Max's father ran onto the field, or when at least three assistant coaches hustled to Max's side, or when the athletic director drove toward Max on a John Deere utility cart. A lot was happening right then, with nearly 100 players leaving the field and a soccer game proceeding a few feet away. The coach was busy. He had a team meeting to conduct, but first he had several goof-offs to yell at once again. They'd gone straight to the water, which was forbidden until after the meeting, and he had to round them up. And then he had to yell at everyone for the terrible practice and tell them they didn't deserve to be Panthers, which half of them probably didn't. All this time Max's cells were melting. Numerous soccer parents turned around to witness the practice, because Stinson was loud and the soccer game was boring. Some saw fit to inform the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, whose reporting led to the criminal investigation.
There followed a series of natural disasters that coincided with milestones in the investigation. On Sept. 14, the day Stinson gave his statement to the police, rare winds battered Louisville with hurricane force and caused four deaths from falling timber. The following January, just after Stinson was indicted for reckless homicide, an ice storm came upon Kentucky and deprived nearly half a million homes and businesses of electricity; at least 55 people were killed. And on Aug. 4, 2009, the day Stinson was indicted for wanton endangerment in the same case, many residents of Louisville fled to their rooftops to escape a rising flood. Stinson worked with his church to ease the suffering of the victims. Nevertheless he saw these events as acts of a God who cared enough to keep him off the front page.
In general the people of Pleasure Ridge Park took Stinson's side. They knew him to be a good Christian man and trusted him with their boys because their boys loved Coach Stinson. They held a silent auction to help pay for his legal defense, and Howard Schnellenberger donated an autographed football. A barbecue joint called Mark's Feed Store promised to donate a portion of its profits over several nights to Stinson's cause, and so many people showed up that one night the place had to shut down because the food was all gone. Stinson's friend Rodney Daugherty wrote a well-researched book—Factors Unknown: The Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. David Jason Stinson & Football—that redirected blame from Stinson to the prosecutors who brought the case. Pleasure Ridge Park High principal David Johnson (free safety, Louisville) summed up the feeling of many others when he said he knew Stinson did nothing wrong because "I know what kind of person he is."
It wasn't just that Stinson did nothing wrong. Stinson could do nothing wrong. Max's mother said that Stinson's wife told her around the time of Max's funeral that the coach was on "suicide watch." Not possible, according to Stinson, because he didn't blame himself for Max's death, and he would never consider suicide—that would be quitting. A soccer mom swore at the trial that Stinson said something to the boys during the running that no one else seemed to remember: "Come on, who's going to be the sacrificial lamb?" No way, Stinson says. He would never say that, because he knows of only one sacrificial lamb. And that lamb's name is Jesus.
But football is America's game, and more than 1,000 boys and men have been killed since 1931 as a direct result of playing football. No other team sport comes close. The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research measured catastrophic injuries in all high school fall sports from 1982 to 2009 and found that 97.1% of them occurred in football. And it must be no coincidence that in an '08 Gallup poll, more Americans chose football as their favorite sport to watch than chose baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, auto racing, golf and tennis combined. We can say we watch for the precision of the quarterbacks, the grace of the receivers, the speed of the running backs, but this is only part of the truth. We watch because football players are warriors, because they are brave, because all that throwing and catching and running is done under threat of lethal violence. There is such a thing as touch football, and such a thing as flag football. Both are safe. No one pays to watch them.
You've got a man looking at prison time for being a football coach," defense attorney Alex Dathorne (cornerback, Miami Palmetto Senior High) said in his closing argument on Sept. 17, 2009. "Jason Stinson on August the 20th of 2008 did absolutely nothing different than every coach in this county, in this Commonwealth, in this country, was doing on that day."
This was part of the reason Dathorne and his law partner, Brian Butler (rabid fan, Notre Dame), two of the best defense attorneys in Louisville, took Stinson's case at a discounted rate. They believed the game of football was on criminal trial and a loss would be disastrous. Coaches would quit by the hundreds for fear of prosecution. The media coverage already had them terrified. During jury selection, one potential juror (a coach, apparently of another sport) said, "Literally every practice, if we're running, I make a point of telling the kids up front so people can hear me, 'You can stop, you can go on or you can do whatever you want on your own.'"