MILFORD, VA., NOV. 1 -- There were two minutes to play before halftime last Friday night in a game that matched two bitter rivals, both suffering dismal seasons. Caroline County High School quarterback George Banks ran a "left sprintout": a wide sweep toward the sideline with the option to pass or run.
It was the last play of the night.
When defenders from Fredericksburg's James Monroe High swarmed over Banks in a tackle that left him unconscious, a brawl erupted that led Caroline to forfeit the game, contributed to the firing of its coach, and sparked a community debate over the role of high school sports in this stretch of rural Virginia -- a place where Friday night football is an institution and some fans don't suffer a loser quietly.
"The lack of sportsmanship is getting to be a big problem everywhere," said H.J. Featherston Jr., chairman of a state athletic committee that investigated the Caroline incident. "It's all over the country and it's in Virginia . . . . We have to do something about it."
Caroline Principal David Baker removed Coach John Watts with two games left in the schedule, in part because of Friday's melee. Watts said he was going to quit at the end of the season anyway because of abuse from fans angry about Caroline's 1-7 record, intimidation he said was capped by phone calls to his unlisted home number threatening to beat him up. At Friday's game, someone threw a bullet from the stands, striking Watts in the neck.
"I didn't want the harassment," said Watts, a 48-year-old former football player for the Marine Corps. "I didn't feel like I got the support I needed."
A sportsmanship board for the Virginia High School League, which oversees extracurricular activities in the state's schools, met today and gave a sharp rebuke to Caroline and Coach Watts.
The board placed Caroline on probation for one year. It also faulted Watts for failing to keep his players on the bench when fighting began, and for a "lack of emotional control" afterwards.
James Monroe High wasn't disciplined, but the board's resolution expressed "extreme concern" about the school's sportsmanship.
Under probation, Caroline may continue to compete but must file a report on "measures it will take to correct its problems," according to a league statement.
Featherston's concern about sportsmanship is shared by some Caroline parents. Betsy Carter, who heads the local parent-teacher group and whose son plays on the junior varsity, said, "I see a lot of bad attitudes out there. They see it from the pros, and the kids follow the pros."
Baker said his school is getting a bad rap from publicity over the brawl and Watts's departure. While fans in Caroline "really like their football," he said, "there's no obsession with it." Although Watts was evidently receiving abuse from three or four "idiots," Baker said, "I think he's overreacted."
Baker cited his own decision to forfeit the game and accept a 14-7 loss as evidence that Caroline's priorities are in the right place. "I'm not going to tolerate this stuff," Baker said of the fighting. "I thought if we continued it, we took the chance of more violence, more injuries."
Some of Caroline's players agree that that might have happened. "They hate us and we hate them," said senior lineman Charles Davis, one of two Caroline players ejected from the game and suspended for one game because of fighting. Many in the community are just as intense as the players. "There's only two things that get people revved up and out of their homes -- that's basketball and football," Davis said.
"It's the only thing to do on Friday night," agreed Matt Solley, who recently moved from Northern Virginia to Caroline, which is halfway between Fredericksburg and Richmond.
Allegations over who was more to blame for Friday night's dust-up have gone back and forth. Watts said James Monroe players, who allegedly stepped on and taunted quarterback Banks after he went down, were "the worst specimen of sportsmanship I've seen in my 34 years in football."
James Monroe Principal Daniel Northern told the sportsmanship board there had been rough play and taunts from Caroline players before the fight broke out.
James Monroe suspended five players for one game and dismissed three for the rest of the season after the brawl. Caroline suspended two players and one assistant coach for one game. The junior varsity coach has taken over the head coaching job since Watts's departure.
Whatever the feelings of some hecklers, Watts still has the support of many players. "They could have let the man coach his last two games," Davis said. "We don't have a coach to replace him in personality . . . . He's more a father than a coach."
Banks said some of Caroline's fans would do well to rethink their perspective on the game. The hecklers, he said, "talk before they think about what the implications are for the people they're saying it to."