Lakeridge coach Tom SmytheWhen I read an account of the Aug. 21 incident between a coach and a player at a Lakeridge High football practice, I winced.

There is so much good about high school sports, when things like this happen, it puts a worthwhile activity for so many in a very bad light.

And when it was reported that during a practice fracas, volunteer coach Michael Cole slugged defensive end Marqueese Royster in the face while the player’s teammates were pinning his arms behind him, the light shone directly on Cole.

Allow me to provide an update on the situation after discussions with head coach Tom Smythe and defensive coordinator Jimmy Thomas during a visit to Lakeridge’s Monday night practice session (Cole has been advised by his attorney not to speak on the matter; Royster and his father, Marcus Royster, declined comment.).

The Pacers opened the season last Friday with a 35-18 victory over Reynolds.

Royster’s indefinite suspension after the incident was lifted when the 6-2, 250-pound senior — who has verbally committed to Portland State — entered the game in the second quarter. Royster played about half of the defensive snaps the rest of the way, according to Smythe.

“What we needed to do was to play a game, get (Royster) back in and get this thing behind us,” Smythe reasoned.

Smythe said he made the decision to play Royster on his own accord, along with the advice of the team’s captains during a Thursday meeting.

“They came to me and said, ‘Play him. Let’s get this over with,’ ” Smythe said.

Cole is suspended from coaching for the rest of the season.

“District policy makes it impossible for him to coach again this year,” Smythe said. “As for in the future, I don’t know. I would hope the district or another district would give him another opportunity.”

Smythe believes Cole, a 28-year-old former offensive tackle who had short stints at Portland State and Oregon State, deserves a suspension. But Smythe thinks a ban for an entire season — and the taint on his record that will carry on from here — is going too far.

“Michael is a victim of circumstance,” said Smythe, 72, who is in his 49th year of coaching. “The world we live in is different than it was even 10 years ago. Everything is out there so fast now. There’s so much misinformation and overreaction.

“You can’t swing at a kid. I wouldn’t agree that’s a big enough crime to eliminate him from the coaching fraternity for life. A bully beating up on a teenager? Excuse me, that’s not what happened.

“I think (the season-long suspension) is wrong. The fight started amongst teenagers and an adult got brought into it at the end. Because he’s an adult, he’s suspended. The punishment doesn’t fit your crime.”

Thomas — who tackled Cole in an attempt to end the altercation with Royster — has a different perspective.

“As a coach, no matter what the circumstances, we’re supposed to be men and we’re supposed to be leaders,” Thomas said. “I’m not saying Mike won’t do the right thing next time. But in that situation, he lost his cool.

“It’s hard to bring a coach back into the environment this year. Not to say there’s not room for forgiveness. There should be. Marqueese and Mike will both grow from it. But I don’t think it’s right for him to come back this year.”

During a scrimmage, Royster had gotten into it with someone across the line from him. Players moved to break up the fight, then it started again. Cole came in attempting to break it up. In several accounts relayed to me, Royster swung the first two blows at Cole — and connected — before the coach retaliated.

Thomas didn’t see that part.

“I can’t speak to that as far as what happened,” he said. “During (the skirmish), things got a little out of hand with the kids, but nothing that’s outside of what normally happens in football. Coaches and players got in there to try to break it up. I saw them separate, then it started again. Then I started over to try to break it up. In that moment, as an adult, (Cole) made the wrong decision.”

Smythe didn’t see it, either. As luck would have it, the head coach missed the practice after undergoing surgery for a detached retina earlier that day.

“What I heard from people was Michael jumped in to try to get it under control,” Smythe said. “It had stopped, things were under control and then Marquees got in a situation with another player. I’ve heard from a number of people that Marqueese swung at Michael. Others said (Royster) swung back” after Cole struck the first blow.

Royster’s mother, who was watching practice, called 9-1-1. After police arrived, the 6-7, 265-pound Cole was arrested and charged with fourth-degree assault and second-degree disorderly conduct. He is scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 24 in Clackamas County Circuit Court.

Royster spent his first two years at Lake Oswego High, playing on the freshman team and then on the junior varsity as a sophomore. Head coach Steve Coury said Royster’s parents were unhappy with his playing time and confronted him regularly about the situation. Royster — who is black — transferred to Lakeridge before his junior year.

The parents “threatened to sue me for racial discrimination,” Coury said. “It wasn’t a great experience when we had him. It was better for everyone when they decided to part ways. It wasn’t working out to their satisfaction.”

Coury said Royster was often involved in altercations with teammates during his two years at Lake Oswego. Smythe said there have been similar incidents during Royster’s time at Lakeridge.

“Marqueese had situations a few times last year where officials came me during games and said, ‘Tom, you’ve got to get No. 58 under control,’ “ Smythe said. “I’d pull him out, chat with him, settle him down and usually put him back in. It’s been a kid-glove type approach pretty much from the beginning.

“Our principal (Jennifer Schiele) has worked with him off and on academically. She says she has never seen the kind of anger and temper he has shown on the football field. Most of the time he’s kind of a loosey-goosey guy, but he has a hair-trigger temper and that’s gotten him into trouble.”

Thomas — who is also black — is the coach who works most closely with Royster, a starter on defense the past two years.

“Marquéese is one of the most physical kids I’ve coached at any level,” Thomas said. “With that you have a guy who can be scrutinized in a lot of ways. But in the game of football, we celebrate (aggression). There’s a fine line with him. He is trying to figure out in a way to deal with his emotions and keep them under control.

“He is one of the best players I’ve been around. His motor is on 100 percent. As a coach, you don’t want to take that away from him. And he’s still a kid. He’s learning; he’s growing up. He is building trust with us that we’re going to guide him in the right way. I don’t think he’ll make those type of decisions or lose his cool again.”

Because Thomas and Royster are black and Cole is white, some have painted that as a major factor. Neither Thomas or Smythe agree with that.

“I don’t think it’s a race issue,” Thomas said. “Football brings out the passion and the emotion and sometimes some of the character flaws we have. Any player or coach can tell you they’ve had moments they’d like to do over again.”

Smythe said Cole had no previous transgressions.

“Michael is a young, energetic guy on the field,” Smythe said. “He’s really good with the kids. They love him to death. I’ve never heard him swear at a kid. When he’s coaching a kid, he coaches him. It’s a good relationship.”

Coury coached Cole after he transferred to Lake Oswego from Lakeridge for his senior year.

“Michael was an ultra-competitive guy, but he got along with everybody,” Coury said. “He was friendly, a jokester, always laughing, with a big smile. He was a good guy to have around. He was a typical kid, but wasn’t a problem guy. There were never any issues.”

Smythe wasn’t sure how long Royster’s indefinite suspension would last after the incident. His initial thought was to sit him out for the Reynolds game. During a team meeting the night before the game, Smythe addressed the issue with his players.

Smythe chose to play Royster. That was a mistake. Royster should have sat out at least a game as a penalty. Playing him was the wrong message to send to both Royster and his teammates.

But I’ve known Smythe for 30 years. I covered several of his games as he coached Lakeridge to the 1987 state championship — he later took McNary to state titles in 1997 and 2001 — and have a great deal of respect for him. I understand it was a difficult decision, one he made for what he felt was best for the player and for the program.

I’ve never met Cole. There’s no question he deserved a suspension. I agree with Thomas — a coach has to be above getting into a physical altercation with a player.

But a season-long suspension is too harsh, especially for what amounts to a first offense for a volunteer coach who is well-regarded in the program.

Royster will be in the starting lineup when the Pacers take on Centennial Friday night. Cole will be nowhere near the action for the rest of the season. I’m hoping this will be a learning experience for the pair. And that in coming years, articles written about both will focus on football and not on fisticuffs.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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