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ROOSEVELT — After an emotionally exhausting five days, Union High head football coach Matt Labrum struggled Wednesday to grasp exactly what the early morning caller was asking of him.
“CNN called my cellphone at 7 a.m.,” said Labrum, who has spoken with reporters from all over the country since the Deseret News and KSL first reported about his staff's decision to suspend their program's 41 varsity and junior varsity players for bad behavior ranging from skipping classes to cyberbullying.
“I don’t know how they got my number," he said, "but they wanted to know if I would talk to Anderson Cooper today.”
The 41-year-old coach and teacher in the Duchesne County town of 6,100 said he’s shocked and overwhelmed by both the media interest and the outpouring of support for the decision he and his staff made last week to suspend everyone but the program’s freshman students from playing football.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people being so supportive of us,” Labrum said. “We’re isolated out here. This is all new. We didn’t want the media exposure to make us lose sight of why we were doing this.”
What Labrum and his staff did was tell the teenage players Friday night that there would be no more football until they earned the privilege to play. At a 7 a.m. meeting the next day, coaches gave the boys a letter that outlined what they would need to do to earn back their jerseys and the right to play in this Friday’s homecoming game.
It's wonderful to see so many people being so supportive of us. We're isolated out here. This is all new. We didn't want the media exposure to make us lose sight of why we were doing this.
–Union High head football coach Matt Labrum
Instead of preparing for Emery High on Monday and Tuesday, the students spent their practice time pulling weeds and visiting with Roosevelt’s elderly and disabled. They were required to attend a class about character, perform additional service for their families and write a report about it, memorize a poem about the importance of character and show significant improvement if they were struggling in school.
After Wednesday's study hall, the boys found out whether they had earned the right to play football again. Of the 41, all but nine had gained back their black and gold jerseys.
“We have enough that we’ll be playing all the games this week,” said Labrum, referring to the junior varsity game Thursday and varsity contest on Friday night. “It was mixed. It’s hard. You have mixed emotions because some guys are so elated they have their jerseys back, but maybe the guy next to him wasn’t getting his. It was very mixed. But I think the guys handled it well.”
Just because the nine players didn’t get their jerseys back Wednesday doesn’t signify the end of their season.
“It doesn’t mean they’re off the team,” the coach said. “It means they won’t be playing this week. Most of them had done 85 or 90 percent of what they needed to.”
Making those decisions as increased media attention swarmed the school and the calls flooded into Union High’s phone lines was difficult, Labrum said.
“I think we made the right decision, but all the media exposure made it harder,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for that. It was hard to focus on what we were trying to do.”
Mike Ross, Union High’s athletic director and assistant principal, said the school was “inundated with emails from across the United States.”
“It’s really quite overwhelming,” he said. “It’s been a positive thing all around.”
Labrum did use the national media coverage to make another point with his players.
“We told them, ‘This isn’t just Utah. We have an opportunity to be an inspiration to an entire nation by doing the right things, by following through — and not just this week. We need to continue to do the right things.”