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Nine players suspended in football hazing injury

SANDWICH -- Nine Sandwich High School football players were suspended and could face criminal charges after a hazing episode on Tuesday targeting freshmen left one student hospitalized with a ruptured spleen, school officials said.

The injured student, Garrett Watterson, 14, was in stable condition yesterday at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, the officials said.

Watterson was among freshmen targeted on the practice field by upperclassmen after one varsity player allegedly called for a "freshmen beat-down," and another allegedly grabbed Watterson's ankles from behind and lifted them in the air, slamming the boy stomach-first onto the ground.

The nine students suspended -- six juniors, two seniors, and a sophomore-- admitted their role to school officials, but the officials say they believe many more were involved.

School officials are cooperating with the police investigation of the matter, which was apparently witnessed by more than 70 players who were on the field during the afternoon practice.

The episode has upset residents in this Cape Cod town, with many saying the upperclassmen did not intend any serious injury. The team forfeited its first game of the season, scheduled for tonight against Abington.

"It's been really hard, and I feel bad for everyone who was even there," said Katie Breslin, a junior at Sandwich High. "I feel for that kid so much, but they all feel horrible about it."

School and police officials sought to characterize the episode as a spontaneous action rather than an annual ritual, and two sophomore players who declined to give their names said they never faced hazing as freshmen.

Several other students said their classmates were shaken by the news. "Everybody was pretty down and really serious today," said Alicia Duffany, 15, a sophomore. "Everybody took it to heart."

Hazing is illegal in Massachusetts, and anyone convicted could face a fine of up to $3,000 or up to a year in prison, or both. Anyone who fails to report hazing can also be charged, and fined up to $1,000.

The episode occurred at the start of practice Tuesday afternoon when players had gathered but no coaches were on the field. School administrators said they could not explain the lack of supervision. "I can't cover up the fact that there was no adult there," said Superintendent Peter Cannone. "If there is a problem that was involved here with procedures that we normally follow, that will have to be dealt with."

Sandwich police Detective Patrick McBride, who is assigned to the high school and has been interviewing players about the episode, said that at the time it occurred, the football players had separated themselves on the practice field into lines of freshman, junior varsity, and varsity players.

One of the three senior varsity captains walked along the line of varsity players, and allegedly began yelling "freshmen beat-down on 3," McBride said. After counting down from 3, the upperclassmen apparently chased and tackled the freshmen, he said. It was a junior who allegedly grabbed Watterson's ankles from behind and dumped him to the ground.

Watterson was hurt but walked off the field just as the head coach arrived. "The youngster passed one of the coaches, and the head coach asked, 'Where are you going?' " said Cannone. "He said 'I don't feel good, coach. I'm going in to the nurse.' "

Watterson did not tell the coach at the time what had happened. Police Chief Mike Miller said Watterson's stepfather later told him that other players had urged him not to report it.

After his mother took him to the doctor, Watterson was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where his spleen was removed. Jordan Hospital officials declined to give his condition yesterday at the request of his family, but school officials who have been in touch with them said he remains stable.

"He's recovering slowly, hopefully he'll be getting better," Watterson's brother, James, a junior, said yesterday. "He's going to have to take medication for the rest of his life."

James Watterson said he knows the student who allegedly injured his brother "and he wouldn't hurt a fly. I know it wasn't intentional."

The senior who allegedly urged the attack and the junior who caused Watterson's injury were suspended for at least 10 days, and removed from the team, said Principal Ellin Booras. The other seven who admitted involvement were suspended for at least five days, during which time they won't be allowed to participate in football.

Booras said the students' suspensions could be extended, depending on the findings of the police investigation. The police chief said that he is still consulting the Plymouth District Attorney's Office about potential charges, and that at least one of the students could face more serious charges such as assault and battery, in addition to hazing.

Police said it appeared unlikely that witnesses of Tuesday's episode would face charges.

"What are we going to do, charge all 70 or so kids out there?" said Miller.

Parents of football players heard the news on Wednesday night at a previously scheduled meeting with coaches, and students were informed yesterday to "minimize the rumor mill," Cannone said.

Bill Gaine, deputy director for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, said he believes hazing is declining.

"There's a greater awareness now, but, obviously, incidents like this show, not enough," he said. 

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