When it comes to football — and online commentary — how rough is too rough?
Seth H. Rocca, 28, an assistant coach for the Upper Loudoun Youth Football League, was charged with assaulting a 14-year-old player after he allegedly shoved the boy to the ground during a practice last week. The player’s parents called Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office deputies to the scene, and “based on the results of the investigation, [Rocca] was charged with simple assault,” said, sheriff’s office spokesman Kraig Troxell.
But the charge was quickly questioned by other coaches and parents who witnessed the incident, some of whom told the Loudoun Times-Mirror that the physical encounter was just a misunderstanding that escalated after Rocca and the player fell to the ground during a routine blocking drill.
The incident ignited an impassioned debate among readers who posted comments on the Times-Mirror’s Web site. Some made snap judgments about Rocca and condemned his actions; others accused the sheriff’s office of mishandling and misrepresenting the situation.
On Wednesday, Rocca’s lawyer, Gregory J. Harris, issued an appeal for civility in a statement on behalf of his client.
“Seth and I both feel the criticism in some of the postings to the online article is just way out of line and over the top,” the statement said. “While Seth would have preferred that the deputies interviewed all of the eyewitnesses, not just the irate father, they did interview one of the coaches who was there and they spoke to Seth. Seth and I both feel very strongly that if the eight other eyewitnesses, all parents and coaches, had been interviewed, no charges would have been filed. Again, it is not the job of the deputies to play judge, jury and executioner. I have no doubt that based on what this father said, the deputies tried to do their job as best they saw it.”
In an interview, Harris noted that the player is a sizable teen — nearly 250 pounds and about 6-feet-2. The boy was wearing pads and a helmet during the drill, Harris said. Rocca was not.
Diane Warr, “Team Mom” for the Cougars, was at the practice and said that Rocca had pulled the player aside to show him how to block without hurting himself.
“He was showing him how to do it. He put his hands on him and then the next thing I know, they just stumbled and went backwards,” she said. “I saw Seth pop right back up and pick the kid up by his shirt, and the kid came up swinging. He was screaming, ‘I’m done. Get off me. I’m done.’ ”
She said that the teen’s parents didn’t react to the fall but that the player’s father ran over when he heard his son shouting.
“I really thought [the father] was going to attack Seth,” Warr said. “He was screaming, threatening Seth, using profanity. Then he took his son’s shoulder pads off and threw them at the other coach, and they stormed off the field.”
Warr said the boy had been under pressure from coaches and players to improve his blocking skills.
“I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “He’s guilty of nothing. I definitely don’t want to put any blame on him; he’s a fine young man.”
Warr said she was not questioned by the sheriff’s deputies who responded.
Mark Powell, a vice president with the Upper Loudoun Youth Football League, said the league’s board members could not comment on the incident. Of the Leesburg coaching team, Powell said: “They’re a great group of guys.”
Harris said that no other complaints have been brought against Rocca.
“He’s one of their very best assistant coaches,” he said.
Rocca will appear in Loudoun County District Court on Wednesday for a hearing to address a protective order requested by the player’s family, Harris said.
He said players, coaches and families associated with the league were expected to attend the hearing to support Rocca. Players planned to bring a football with Rocca’s name and the signatures of team and league members as a symbol of solidarity, Harris said.
Warr said the Cougars players are “devastated” that Rocca is no longer at practice.
“He’s a big teddy bear,” she said. “He does try to motivate the kids and get them pumped up, but he’s never, never out of control.”
A trial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 10. Harris said he and Rocca are optimistic about the outcome of the court proceedings.
“I think he’ll have overwhelming support from the players, as well as all the other parents,” Harris said. “I think football is football, and from what all the eyewitnesses we’ve spoken to face-to-face say, this was football.”