Clad in red sneakers, red cap and a red-and-white Cleveland High football jersey, would-be running back Sean Burwell watched from the sidelines last Friday afternoon as Cleveland was buried, 33-0, by Canoga Park. As bench-warmers shouted words of encouragement to players on the field, Burwell walked along the fringe of the mass of players, keeping to himself.
Burwell's behavior was appropriate, because for the past seven weeks, he has been an exile--football's version of the man in the iron facemask. Some say he was a victim of, strangely enough, red tape.
After missing two games, wading through an avalanche of City Section paper work and waiting through weeks of meetings, delays, rulings and petitions, Burwell was informed Thursday that he will not play varsity football this season.
At Burwell's feet lay a game program. Inside, where his name should have been entered alongside the notation for uniform No. 21, was a blank space.
"I'd sure like to be out there," Burwell said softly as he watched his teammates being blanked. "I just want to play."
Anybody who follows high school football knows Burwell (6-0, 178) wants to play. Last season as a sophomore at Chaminade, Burwell was fourth among Valley-area running backs with 1,211 yards. Only Crespi's Russell White (2,339 yards) had more yards among returning players.
The real question was whether Burwell would be allowed to play.
"He had to stand there and watch us lose, 33-0, with tears in his eyes," Cleveland assistant Art Tillman said. "It isn't fair."
Friday's tears were nothing compared to those that fell after yesterday's news. The City rules subcommittee unanimously agreed, by a 6-to-0, vote to deny Burwell's eligibility petition.
What started as a relatively uncomplicated petition for athletic eligibility deteriorated into charges of racial bigotry and institutional bias.
"And Sean is the pawn," Cleveland Coach Steve Landress said.
Burwell's odyssey began in August, when he transferred to Cleveland from Chaminade--a private parochial school of 950 students in grades 7-12--after Burwell was involved in an on-campus fight with a teammate. Rather than face punishment, which included a one-game suspension, academic probation and a year of psychological counseling, Burwell transferred.
The transfer was quickly approved, with Chaminade's blessing. The eligibility request, however, quickly became mired in bureaucratic mud.
Burwell first filed a financial-hardship petition with City officials in late August. CIF rules require a player who transfers without changing his residence to prove hardship in order to be ruled eligible for varsity competition. Burwell, who lives within Cleveland's attendance boundaries, did not change his address.
On Sept. 24, the City ruled that Burwell's mother, Sharon, had an income that precluded a financial-hardship ruling. The Burwells changed the plea to emotional hardship on Sept. 28, based on the proposed punishment and alleged racial tension at Chaminade. Burwell was one of a handful of black students attending Chaminade.
The second petition specifically pointed to the fight with lineman Dave Stark, which occurred during an unsupervised weightlifting workout in mid-August. Burwell reported that Stark made a derogatory racial remark that prompted the incident. Chaminade players and coaches have disputed the charge. Stark, who played in his first game of the season last Friday because of a broken jaw incurred during the fight, was suspended for one game.
The season, meanwhile, had started without Burwell. In its opener, Cleveland defeated Chatsworth, 13-6.
The City rules subcommittee was scheduled to make a final determination on the second petition at 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 1. At 7:42 a.m., however, an earthquake forced evacuation of City headquarters and postponement of the vote until Thursday morning.
Today, after weeks of practicing with the team, Burwell is no closer to joining the team.
Burwell left Chaminade amid a cloud of controversy. The scuffle wasn't the first sign of trouble for the 16-year-old.
"The fight wasn't his only offense of this type," said Chaminade Coach Rich Lawson, who is also dean of students. "He's spent some time in this office."
A teammate who witnessed the fight claims Burwell hit Stark, who is white, with a sucker punch after Stark brushed Burwell away. Burwell had a history of starting trouble and criticizing other players, said Doug Kavulich, a senior lineman.
"He was just a negative person. Imagine, bagging on the guys who blocked for him," Kavulich said. "The racism thing really makes me mad. He had friends here. If anything, he was put on a pedestal because he was a running back."
The pedestal was soon toppled. The four players who were in the weight room at the time of the fight submitted written versions of the incident.