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Cardinal Ritter vs Nazareth Football

In a season-opening victory against Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Ill., a player wearing No. 24 identified as Marvin Burks rushed for 109 yards and had one interception. The player has tattoos on his right arm remarkably similar to Lions running back Bill Jackson, who was supposed to be suspended for that game. Mike Mantucca, Special to STLhighschoolsports.com

This is a story about disguises.

Not just the disguise of a football player, but also of a trusted coach disguising disingenuity as leadership. That second disguise is particularly disgusting.

Cardinal Ritter star junior Bill Jackson was supposed to be suspended for the team’s first game. But coach Brandon Gregory played Jackson in the game, having Jackson wear a different uniform number and claim a different name.

“Marvin Burks, we added him last minute,” Gregory said after the Aug. 31 win at Nazareth Academy outside of Chicago in a quote that, months later, comes off as frighteningly casual and almost playful — as if he knew he got away with something and was having a little fun with it all.

On offense, “Marvin Burks” ran for a 56-yard touchdown. On defense, “Marvin Burks” made a key interception of Nazareth’s Michigan-bound quarterback.

“To pick off J.J. McCarthy period, and for us to get five in a game, it’s a testament to where we were able to disguise coverages,” Gregory said, probably unaware that his use of “disguise” was ominous.

His brazen and sloppy audacity came back to haunt and hurt himself — and all of his players, too.

The coach personally made the decision to let the suspended player play.

The coach got his fellow coaches on board.

The coach essentially told the players — high school students — to carry out a lie.

And then, it was over before September even began, a lie swept under the rug (or the artificial turf) at Nazareth Academy.

You’ve probably heard what happened next. Weeks later, with Ritter playing great and Jackson back in the mix, David Kvidahl of STLhighschoolsports.com reported that Jackson’s tattoos matched those of Marvin Burks, photographed in that first game. Season was canceled. Coaches were fired. Games were forfeited. The No. 1-ranked team in the state won’t get a chance to become state champs. Some other team will be cloaked in that honor.

“It all comes down to me and my actions,” Gregory said by phone Monday night. “It’s been a hard, emotional time, up and down. The biggest concern I have is for those kids. The seniors that didn’t get a Senior Night. I’m apologetic and you realize how many people this has hurt. You’re remorseful, you’re regretful and you’re sorry. I’m sorry.”

It was Gregory’s prerogative, but he declined to go into details when asked the main question: Why did you decide to play Jackson in the first game of the year?

Asked if he wanted to win so badly, he didn’t realize how much of a negative impact playing Jackson could have, Gregory said: “Not to go too far into it, it really didn’t have anything to do with winning — it really had something to do with the kid. It wasn’t about my ego and me winning. It was about the kid. That’s about as much as I can say about that.”

Jackson had been ejected from the 2018 state title game, which Ritter lost. The first game of 2019, which Ritter won, gave players a chance to showcase skills against a powerful opponent. On Monday, the Nazareth athletic director said by phone that the school wouldn’t comment on the Ritter game. But their five-star quarterback McCarthy tweeted: “We lost. I don’t care who played for them. They deserve the win. Nothing but respect for them.”

A high school coach has a particular amount of power. He or she can shape a student’s integrity, sway a student’s mindset, start a student’s trajectory. Former Ritter football player Deontae Graham, a lineman for Quincy University, tweeted that Gregory “put kids like me in the situation” to attend college for free with athletic scholarships and “to play the sport we love.” A very touching and true sentiment. No question that Gregory has made many young men better men.

But his fire backfired.

“I’m still on Instagram,” Gregory said by phone, “and I see the kids post that ‘we miss coach Gregory, we miss coach BG, he was like a father figure.’ And what’s getting me more is there were students I didn’t even think I had an impact on, but I’m realizing I did. I had one young lady, who I probably said three words to in three years, but she doesn’t have a dad and always told people that if she had a dad, she’d want him to be like coach BG. So that just crushes me.

“I hate that this incident had to happen for me to realize that I played an impact on a lot of people’s lives. Because at the end of the day, I don’t do it for recognition — I do it because I really love the kids. But now I have time to sit back and reflect on who all it has hurt.”

What’s been surprising during this past few days is the justifications ... the excuses... and explanations for Gregory’s actions.

Other teams cheat, too.

The fight was last year, why should it affect this year’s team?

What’s the big deal — Jackson is on the team.

Coaches push the limits — Bill Belichick was fined for illegally videotaping opponents, and he’s considered the greatest coach ever.

“What the coach did was wrong, even if you feel like you can get away with it,” said Vincent Rucker Sr., whose son is a sophomore in the Ritter football program. “But I just want to say, I played in high school, and I played (youth football). Things that he did, I’ve seen. I’m not trying to make an excuse for him, but I’ve seen things like that. I’ve seen a coach actually go to jail and bail a kid out so he could play in a big game. This was in St. Louis.

“This whole situation is just heartbreaking for the kids.”

And that’s the main point. It’s heartbreaking for the kids. The Ritter football players who just want to play football, try to win state and maybe even earn a scholarship.

What’s also heartbreaking? The mixed messages they’re sorting out about doing the right thing.

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