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ROOSEVELT — The Union Cougars were no match Friday night for the Emery Spartans, losing a homecoming heartbreaker in front of a capacity crowd that turned out to support a team that has spent the week in the national spotlight.
Head coach Matt Labrum fielded questions all week from the media about his staff's decision to suspend every varsity and junior varsity player after the team's Sept. 20 game.
"I never expected it to go like it did," Labrum said following an early morning practice Friday.
Holding the whole team accountable for off-field misconduct by a few players struck a chord across the country. School administrators were inundated with emails and phone messages that were almost entirely supportive of the suspensions.
"I'm just calling to show my support for the coach that suspended the football team," a woman from New York said in a message left on Union athletic director Mike Ross' phone.
"I just want you to know that I give (Labrum) an A-double-plus," a caller from Texas said. "That is awesome. We need more of that in this country."
"He's just a wonderful human being," a South Carolina woman said.
Union Principal Rick Nielsen said he also took a call from an Illinois man whose son committed suicide after being bullied. The man believes his son would still be alive if he'd had a coach like Labrum, Nielsen said.
"It was a very emotional call," he said.
Labrum and his staff decided to suspend their entire team, except for the freshman squad, after they learned of a incident of anonymous cyber-bullying that targeted a Union student who is not a football player. It wasn't clear whether players were involved in the incident, Labrum said, but the football program wasn't going in the right direction. A few of his student-athletes were being disrespectful to teachers, sluffing class and weren't meeting academic expectations, the coach said.
"We were looking at football as a right, rather than a privilege," Labrum said earlier in the week.
To get their jerseys back, the players were required to perform acts of service for their families and document what they'd done. They also had to take part in two days of community service in lieu of regular practices, attend a mandatory character-education class, a study hall session and memorize and recite a paragraph-long quote about the value of having good character.
Finally, they had to pledge to be to all practices on time, to demonstrate respect for their teachers, fellow students and members of the community, and to maintain their grades.
By the time the Cougars took the field Friday, only eight players were not in uniform. Some were held out due to injury, while others failed to meet the coaches' academic requirements to rejoin the team.
"One of the things we had to learn was not to just make ourselves better, but to help our teammates out," said sophomore Villiami Lutui, who earned his jersey back.
"There's a couple of the guys that we're talking to, making sure that they get their jersey back, even though they didn't get them back this week," he said.
Despite dropping their homecoming game 41-21 to the Spartans, Lutui said it's the lessons the team learned this week that will last long after they're done playing under the Friday night lights.
"I think it will affect us for the rest of our lives," he said. "I don't think we'll ever forget it." Which is why Labrum loves to coach.
"I hope that we could make a positive influence and a positive difference for the entire country, if that's where it needs to be," the coach said. "This is what we feel like is important in sports."