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Football

At Rockwall-Heath High, a ‘Gladiator Sport’ Splits the Community

Anywhere from 15 to 20 Rockwall-Heath football players were sickened after an intense workout. As the community rallies around their coach and sick players allege bullying from their teammates, their parents wonder: can the team ever coalesce on the field again?
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Diana Avila doesn’t like to think about the messages she read on her brother’s phone as he lay in his hospital bed at Children’s Medical Center in Plano. They came from his classmates and football teammates at Rockwall-Heath High School, and they were hateful. Profanity-laden. “Things I can’t even repeat,” she says. 

Her younger brother, whom D Magazine will not identify to protect his privacy, was one of as many as 20 football players hospitalized due to a stress condition called rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo, following a January 6 workout. The aftermath has erupted into a national story and divided a community.

On one side is a group of student-athletes and parents who allege that the workout, which was led by Heath coaching staff and head football coach John Harrell, was irresponsible at best. Some parents say it was abusive. Hazing. 

On the other are Harrell’s supporters, who allege the coaching staff did nothing wrong. That, by virtue of rhabdo being a complicated, enigmatic condition, perhaps the student-athletes themselves are to blame. 

In between is the Rockwall Independent School District, which has placed Harrell on leave amid active investigations by both the district and the state.

Avila saw the human cost of that conflict in her brother’s face as the messages rolled in on Snapchat. Eventually, he stopped reading. Doctors intervened when the messages made his blood pressure rise to dangerous levels, she says.

“This was not healthy, these kids bullying him and blaming him for the fact that the head coach was on leave,” she says. “This is a football community—I thought we would have each other’s backs. I thought you could support both the coaches and the players. 

“But it doesn’t seem like it.”

January 6 was a Friday. It was two days after Rockwall ISD students returned to school following winter break. Football season had been over for weeks. Team workouts had paused during the holidays.

With students back on campus, it was time to determine which players might be able to take the jump to the varsity roster to replace the departing seniors. 

“My son said that on Wednesday, the coaching team met with everybody and said they were going to do something different that week,” says Dr. Osehotue Okojie, a family practice doctor and the mother of a Hawks player who participated in the workout. The afternoon was geared toward students who would be eligible to try out for the varsity team next year. 

According to several families, not every Hawks player participated in that afternoon workout. They cite a video they observed of many nonparticipants standing on the sideline, heckling the players who were attempting to complete drills. More than one parent said they felt the entire scene bordered on hazing.

Every mistake was punished with a round of 16 pushups, which was confirmed by team captain Brady Luff in an interview with WFAA. Luff said that the drills are about discipline, and if the players perform them correctly, the team moves on in the workout. If not, “we do 16 pushups.” Sixteen, he said, because it is symbolic of the number of games a team must win to win a state championship.

The athletes, both Okojie and Avila say, made 23 mistakes during the initial workout. That added up to 368 pushups performed in a fraction of a class period. (A class period is about 50 minutes, according to the district’s bell schedule.)

Okojie’s son had only recently recovered from a broken wrist that left him in a cast. While the cast had been removed at the time of the workout, Okojie says he wasn’t cleared for full workouts, much less pushups. Still, he participated.

Her son told her that as he struggled to complete the pushups on his weakened wrist, an assistant football coach stopped to yell at him. “He said something like, ‘Your fucking wrist should be fine by now,’” she says. “He wasn’t even supposed to be working out at all.”

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As many as 20 Rockwall-Heath football players developed symptoms of rhabdomyolysis after a Jan. 6 workout that saw them reportedly completing as many as 368 pushups. Courtesy Photo

Nevertheless, Okojie initially didn’t think too much about her son’s complaints after she picked him up for the workout. She suspected it was ordinary muscle soreness. That night, she says she helped her son stretch, gave him some over-the-counter pain medication, and let him go to bed.

But Saturday afternoon, Okojie and her husband realized that their son had not come out of his room to empty the dishwasher—one of his daily chores. 

“Then he came down, and he said, ‘I didn’t want to drop anything,’” she says. “We asked, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he said, ‘I can’t move my arms.’”

By Monday, the pain was severe enough to move him to tears. His urine was brown. Both of his arms were so swollen that even a soft touch hurt him. 

“He was unable to lift his hands to feed himself or even to dress himself,” she says. “My 11-year-old daughter helped him put on his shirt.”

Okojie’s doctor instincts kicked into gear. She took her son to her downtown clinic, where she and her staff ran tests. She suspected that it was severe rhabdomyolysis, which, if left untreated, can result in cardiac issues, kidney failure, even death. Symptoms of rhabdo typically emerge 24 to 48 hours following overexertion.

“What happens with exertional rhabdomyolysis is that if you do physical activity that overexerts the skeletal muscle—like lifting weights or doing something that really stresses the muscle—it breaks down,” says Dr. Troy Smurawa, the director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Plano. (The Andrews Institute is named for the world-renowned sports orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, and is one of the first pediatric sports medicine centers of its kind in North Texas.)

Those muscle breakdowns resulted in elevated levels of myoglobin, which can cause kidney damage, and creatine, a marker of damaged muscle tissue. The normal range of creatine is up to 200 international units. Smurawa says rhabdo cases boast levels at least five times that amount. Okojie says that her son’s level that Monday, three days after the workout, was around 139,000 iu. 

In the days to come, several other families who were aware of her medical background reached out with reports of similar numbers for their sons. One family told her their son’s levels were above 200,000. Some say that their sons were on dialysis, and one family reported that their son had been admitted into a local intensive care unit. 

“This is a football community—I thought we would have each other’s backs. I thought you could support both the coaches and the players.  … But it doesn’t seem like it.”

Diana Avila

Okojie’s son was admitted to Children’s Medical Center. As he recovered, the doctor worried about his teammates. How many other kids in the workout were suffering, too? Without a doctor in their families, would they know to seek medical attention, or were they under the impression that they were just experiencing typical post-workout soreness? 

“In 20 years, I haven’t seen this. This is not something you see—certainly not [with] children,” she says. “I was highly concerned that other moms and dads may not recognize that this is what’s happening, and they needed to get the word out right away.”

Okojie contacted the school district. Her email went to several Rockwall ISD employees, including Harrell, Rockwall-Heath High School principal Todd Bradford, and superintendent John Villarreal. She explained her son’s condition and its ties to that Friday workout. 

The next day, the school distributed a letter to parents that explained the symptoms and advised them to see the campus trainer if their child was experiencing any. The district also explained that it had opened an investigation and had placed Harrell on administrative leave pending results. 

Okojie believes her email prompted the district to take action. If so, had her son heeded his doctor’s orders that Friday and not worked out, it might have been days before other parents were alerted to the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis.

Avila says that warning to the school led her family to realize that something more was going on with her brother.

“When I went to pick him up from school that afternoon, he came to my car, and he told me first thing, ‘You won’t believe how many pushups I just did,’” she says of that Friday workout. “And he was so sore, but we were thinking that maybe it would just get worse for the next couple of days because it was regular exercise. I did think it was maybe excessive.”

Over time, her brother became sorer and stiffer. 

“My mom said he walked like a robot, and it was a struggle for him to eat because he couldn’t lift his arms,” Avila says. “He struggled to even change clothes Monday.”

She picked him up early because he was “fearful they would be doing pushups again.” Later that day, Coach Harrell called to check on his player. He advised the Avila family speak with a trainer, who explained that he may be suffering from rhabdomyolysis and told them to come in the next day if he was still not feeling well. 

By the next day, they were at the school by 7 a.m. Avila waited in the car while her brother checked in with the trainer. 

“I get a knock on my window, and it’s a trainer with my brother,” she says. “She’s telling me that he needs to go to the hospital.”

He was admitted on a Tuesday, four days after that workout. He didn’t leave until Saturday. 

Not long after her email to the district, Okojie says she received a call from Harrell asking about her son’s condition. He also wanted to learn more about rhabdomyolysis. She urged Harrell to get in touch with the other families of players on the team to let them know the symptoms to look for. 

Harrell, who could not be reached for comment, is entering his second season as the Hawks coach after previously serving as an assistant. He has been employed by Rockwall ISD since 2019. According to the district’s announcement of his promotion, Harrell had previously coached at Stephenville, Midlothian, and Garland ISDs in capacities including offensive coordinator, head powerlifting coach, and run game coordinator. He earned an undergraduate degree in exercise and sports studies, and got his master’s degree in education from Tarleton State University.

No one interviewed for this story believes that Harrell had bad intentions, despite his being placed on leave. They describe a coach widely beloved by his players, many of whom joined parents to speak in his defense at a recent school board meeting. “He made me a better player and a better man,” Luff said at that meeting.

“I don’t think he meant to harm [the kids],” Okojie says. “I think there was some overzealousness here when it comes to sports and the culture of sports in general.”

But Ojokie suspects that the heavy workout after a few weeks off may have contributed to the number of students who were sickened by the workout. Smurawa agrees, adding that attempting a physical activity that either hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been performed recently can contribute to the likelihood of developing rhabdo. It’s also possible that more students did develop some degree of rhabdomyolysis, but without the severity that forced their teammates to seek medical attention.

Not everyone agrees. The scene that those parents described is much different from what Luff told WFAA. According to him, the workout wasn’t unusual and “wasn’t any different than any workout we’ve done before, intensity-wise.” Luff also said that nobody was forced to do the workouts. 

“[Coach Harrell] would never make us do a workout thinking it was gonna put any of us at risk,” he told the news station.

That kicked off a firestorm of community support for Harrell. During the public comment portion of Rockwall ISD’s January 17 school board meeting, several players and parents arrived wearing “Keep Harrell” t-shirts. The group spoke in support of their head coach, which included Luff. All opened their statements with words of support for Harrell and the players, but the intent was to show that, as Luff said, “we want our coach back.”

The narrative within Rockwall began to shift. Where there had been some concern for the hospitalized students, the matter grew complicated. Head basketball coach Brad Waters praised the coaching staff in a social media post. It was met with some agreement, but many more questioned the coach’s decision to comment at all when students were still hospitalized and investigations were ongoing.

“Coach, you are a respected leader in our community. You have been a community builder, you can make a difference right now,” one commenter said. “Completely inappropriate to be commenting on social media right now. The Hawks still have students in the HOSPITAL. We are a community.”

(Waters later limited who could comment on the post. He did not respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, many families shared social media accounts that, to them, made it clear that any support for the hospitalized players was dissipating. A counter-narrative was emerging: these students were blaming a beloved coach for their own weakness. 

Several families, including the Okojies and the Avilas, say they suspect some athletes were reluctant to come forward about the workout because they saw the bullying their teammates received, while also liking and respecting Harrell. At least one parent’s social media account of what happened declared that their son was reluctant to seek medical attention because he didn’t want to get his coach in trouble.

“Silence is consent.”

Dr. Osehotue Okojie

Soon after came the Snapchat messages to ill students. At one point, they became so pervasive that the school was forced to address bullying among its student body.

“We take allegations of bullying very seriously and, as a result, follow District policy, state law and the Student Code of Conduct when we become aware of an incident,” the district told D Magazine in a statement. “Our principal met with students and reminded them to maintain excellence in the classroom, to encourage one another in and out of the classroom and to follow the expectations regarding the use of technology resources, the internet and social media.”

Okojie feels the coaching staff could have led the way in supporting the sick players and by encouraging teammates to discontinue the bullying. 

“Silence is consent,” she says. “So if you’re not telling them, ‘Look, stop, I don’t appreciate this,’ then silence is consent.”

Both Okojie and Avila are also aware that the families were being blamed for the Child Protective Services investigation, which they deny. The district told D that it had “immediately” informed CPS about the incident, as it is mandated by state law to do, and would also cooperate with that investigation. 

“Believe me, we were not thinking about calling CPS about anything,” Avila says. “We were focused on a really sick kid, and that’s all we were focused on.”

Okojie isn’t ready to say what should happen to Harrell and the rest of the coaching staff. She wants to see what happens with the district’s investigation.

“I just want the investigation to follow the process,” she says. “Let them investigate and find out what they feel should happen. I don’t have the facts of everyone’s case. I know what happened in my kid’s case, and I know what happened from several parents who’ve reached out to me. So I think it’s best to wait for the investigation to be concluded.”

Until it does, at least some of the blame will likely continue to be directed at the students.

“We kept seeing people say that our children must have been on drugs, or taking supplements,” Okojie says. “They were not. We kept hearing that they must be weak, but they aren’t. The workout was just too much.”

Part of the confusion could stem from the confusing nature of rhabdo itself. While the number of students affected was abnormally high, plenty of other football players didn’t require medical care.

“There are some underlying conditions that can predispose you to having more symptoms,” says Smurawa, the director of the Andrews Institute at Children’s Health. “If you’re dehydrated, or if you’re exercising in a hot environment. If you have an underlying condition like sickle cell trait, or you’re sick with some kind of respiratory infection, or you have an underlying autoimmune issue.”

Ultimately, he says, “There are a lot of factors as to why some people may exhibit symptoms and some may not. If you’re having mild symptoms, they could have been written off as just normal muscle soreness from a harder-than-usual workout.” 

But even that doesn’t completely explain why as many as 20 students developed the condition. Based on conversations Okojie says she had with other parents, some of the players who were hospitalized had worked out during the winter break on their own. 

Okojie says some parents have told her they didn’t take their kids to the hospital, so the number of sick children might be higher than reported. Weeks after the event, the exact number of children sickened by the workout remains unknown. Rockwall ISD, despite several requests, refuses to provide a number, citing a federal privacy law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“FERPA doesn’t bar (the) release of numbers—only personally identifiable information that’s a part of a student educational record,” says Chip Stewart, a professor at TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Community Journalism who specializes in media law, freedom of information and public records laws, and sports journalism. Districts have released that sort of data before, most recently while reporting COVID cases. Federal guidance indicates that as long as there are more students in a group—in this case, the football team—than there are sickened students, privacy can be maintained while still reporting the number of sick students.

D later submitted an open records request for the texts and emails regarding coaching staff and sick or injured athletes for the first part of January in an attempt to verify the number. The same spokesperson said the district would not seek an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office—something that is often done when a government entity disagrees with an open records request—because “in the Texas Public Information Handbook, the Texas Attorney General specifically noted its office will not address the applicability of FERPA as part of a public information request.”

However, when Okojie submitted her own open records request to see video clips of her son prior to and during the January 6 workout, the district first told her that it would allow her to view those clips, but any subsequent requests would be funneled through the AG’s office for review. Okojie asked how that was possible, since the office said it wouldn’t review requests related to FERPA. The district responded that they would seek the opinion because it was a privacy matter “under the exception of the Texas Homeland Security Act.”

The lack of transparency can fuel skepticism about whether a full reckoning is coming in Rockwall. That, despite whatever consequences Harrell may face, whether the district will ensure safeguards are in place to prevent an incident like this from happening again. 

Such measures currently fall on schools and coaching staffs alone. The University Interscholastic League, which oversees the state’s public school athletic programs and competitions, outlines rules for summer two-a-day practices that address acclimating athletes to workouts gradually. But when reached for comment, a UIL spokesperson confirmed to D that there are no rules governing the intensity of workouts for the rest of the calendar year.

At least one parent worries that no matter which side is in the right, the nature of the sport means another incident is inevitable.

“It’s bound to happen again—we’re playing a gladiator sport,” parent Bobby Robinson said while speaking in support of Harrell at a recent school board meeting. “I think some of us as parents have failed. If our kids are going to play a sport, we should push them and do what we need at home because of the demand. It’s bound to happen again. Maybe not next year, but it’s going to happen again because it’s football.”

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Rockwall-Heath High School Google Streetview

Most of the families interviewed for this story report that their children are back at school, even though they feel lingering effects as they recuperate. Avila says her brother attended one day but had to stay home the next because he was fatigued. His liver is still enlarged. But his creatine numbers are dropping, as are those of Okojie’s son. 

The greatest toll might be emotional. Prior to his first day back in school, Avila’s brother worried about what kind of reception he would get, given the messages he received while in the hospital.

“It’s bound to happen again—we’re playing a gladiator sport,”

Bobby Robinson, parent

“I know he was nervous because he didn’t know what to expect from the other kids,” she says. “He’s more confident, and I know he’s in a better place now, but he was not at that time.”

Both Avila and Okojie believe that if their family members had been injured during a game, the community support would’ve been present. But emotions and reactions are trickier when their illnesses are the likely result of a judgment call by their own coaches. To that end, they both wonder how a team can coalesce when some of its players accused many others of being weak, alleged they took drugs or supplements, and subjected them to other vitriol on social media. 

“I don’t know how you go on that field and feel like they have your back,” Okojie says. “It’s very difficult. You’re gonna not want to play with these guys because these guys have pretty much not supported you.”

“It just seems like there’s a divide when there shouldn’t be.” Avila adds. “These kids didn’t choose to be hospitalized.”

Ideally, they hope that what happened at Rockwall-Heath High School spurs change at athletic programs across the state. They want increased focus on making sure that strength and conditioning regimens are appropriate for the time of year, age of the student, and level of expertise of the coach in charge of it. They’d like to see the UIL weigh in with better guidance on best practices for workouts. 

“What we need is a culture where, whatever we do, there’s safety involved in that,” Okojie says. “No one is saying football shouldn’t be played. And my son has played football safely up until this point, just like these other children. None of them have had problems up until this point. So I think we need to look at what level is appropriate to be exerting yourself, and at what point should you say that we need some guidance as to what is too much, especially when you are talking about children.”

Avila says that her brother’s experience during recuperation left him less enthusiastic about playing again. “When he was in the hospital, he was questioning it,” she said. Her family says it’s his decision, and they’ll support whatever choice he makes. 

She believes it will come down to “a lot of factors, including the relationship he might have with his teammates.”

Perhaps she’ll be wrong, and a football community can come together once again.

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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