The shout from a Mater Dei High School football player alerted his teammates to two players about to square off in the school’s freshman locker room for Bodies, an initiation or hazing ritual where players punch each other in the torso between the hips and shoulders until one of them surrenders.
On this afternoon, prior to a Mater Dei practice in February, one of the participants, 5-foot-9, 175 pounds and a newcomer to the team, paced uneasily, shirtless, a chain with a crucifix dangling around his neck, while his opponent, more than 50 pounds heavier, moved from side to side in a narrow area near the room’s red lockers.
“Got the timer right here, guy,” a player can be heard yelling over laughter on a video of the incident. “Ready, three, two, one, go.”
And with that, the two players began punching each other in a fight that eventually moved to the varsity locker room where they continued to brawl beneath “COURAGE, PRIDE, POISE” painted in large letters on the walls as some Mater Dei players shouted racial epithets while others sat at their lockers not even paying attention to the altercation.
The fight would leave the smaller player with a traumatic brain injury, two gashes over his right eye, one over his left and a broken nose that would require surgery, the results of a series of blows to the head that would prompt a Santa Ana Police Department investigator to recommend the Orange County District Attorney’s juvenile division file felony battery charges against the other player, according to a police report reviewed by the Southern California News Group.
Four police reports, surgeon’s reports and other medical records, Mater Dei emails, letters, forms, records and memos, as well court filings, interviews and two videos of the altercation obtained or reviewed by SCNG also raise questions about the culture within one of the nation’s preeminent high school football programs.
“If I had a hundred dollars for every time these kids played Bodies or Slappies, I’d be a millionaire,” Mater Dei head football coach Bruce Rollinson told the injured player’s father the day after the altercation, according to a court filing.
During the same conversation, Rollinson told the parent that he was in a “bind” in terms of disciplining the other player because he said his father was one of the team’s volunteer coaches. The coach is not listed on Mater Dei’s website as a member of the school’s coaching staff but is a private coach who has tutored several players who have attended Mater Dei. He has also posted on social media a series of videos from the midst of Mater Dei pregame drills this season.
The injured student, identified in this report as Player 1, eventually withdrew from Mater Dei and continues to have issues related to his brain injury, according to records and interviews. The other student, Player 2, continues to play for an undefeated Monarchs team, that is currently ranked No.1 nationally by USA Today and plays Servite for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship Friday night.
Mater Dei has adopted a slogan for the season – “Red Honor.”
Mater Dei officials initially declined to cooperate with Santa Ana Police Department investigators, according to police reports. Rollinson and Kevin Kiernan, the school’s athletic director, finally agreed to be interviewed by a Santa Ana Police Department investigator with Mater Dei assistant principal for student services Miguel Gutierrez present on April 21, more than two months after the altercation and when the Santa Ana PD first requested information from the school, according to police reports.
Rollinson during the police interview denied hazing existed in the Mater Dei program. He added that the interview was the first time he had heard of the Bodies game.
However, nearly two months earlier, on Feb. 25, a player had provided Mater Dei linebackers coach Pat Dunbar a cell phone video of the fight, according to a police report.
“This is a hazing ritual that has a name, a name known by the players,” said Brian L. Williams, an attorney for Player 1. “It even has a set of unwritten rules so to say it doesn’t exist is disingenuous.”
The father of Player 2 told Santa Ana police on Feb. 16 “that this incident had already been handled by the school,” according to a police report. Player 2 declined through his attorney to be interviewed by police, citing his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights, a police report stated.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office does not intend to file charges in the case and views the altercation as mutual combat.
Mater Dei trainer Kevin Anderson, after seeing Player 1’s injuries, “spoke with the administrative staff at Mater Dei who told him not to call the paramedics and to delay contacting (Player 1’s) parents,” according to a court filing. Anderson, despite seeing the severity of Player 1’s injuries, did not immediately treat the player and instead continued taping other players’ ankles for practice, according to a court filing.
Player 1’s family filed a lawsuit against Mater Dei High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Orange County Superior Court on Tuesday, Nov. 23. The suit alleges negligence, negligence per se-hazing in violation of the California penal code, negligent failure to warn, train or educate, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Mater Dei’ s conduct related to the altercation, Player 1’s attorneys Williams and Michael Reck allege in the suit, “including the attitude and dismissiveness of Coach Rollinson in terms of the dangers created by Bodies, was outrageous. This is especially true in light of the fact that the administration and coaches at Mater Dei valued the school’s status as a nationally recognized football powerhouse over the health and safety of its minor athletes.”
“This incident,” Williams said, “(shows) that Mater Dei is more concerned about protecting its brand as the top ranked football program in the country than protecting its students.”
Mater Dei has been named in a series of civil lawsuits in recent years filed on behalf of former students who allege they were sexually abused by school employees.
“Mater Dei has a culture of lies and secrecy and this case is right out of their playbook,” Reck said. “They’ve covered up sexual abuse, they’ve covered up violence and now they’re covering up hazing to protect the glory of the football team.”
Rollinson did not respond to multiple telephone messages requesting comment and an email detailing the allegations raised in this report. Mater Dei principal Frances Clare did not respond to requests for comment.
“Obviously I can’t comment on anything right now,” said Kiernan, the school’s athletic director, who referred the questions about the incident to the school’s administration.
Mater Dei in a statement to SCNG said, “An independent, thorough investigation was conducted. We are unable to comment further due to the involvement of minors.”
Mater Dei, founded in 1950, is the largest co-educational Roman Catholic high school west of the Mississippi River. The Santa Ana school’s motto is “Honor, Glory, Love” and claims that “Mater Dei and its students have influenced Orange County through campus ministry, the arts, academics and athletics.”
The school has also gained national prominence through its football program. Mater Dei is one of only two high schools in the country to count two Heisman Trophy winners – John Huarte of Notre Dame (1964) and Matt Leinart of USC (2004) – among their alumni. The nation’s top two college teams in the preseason polls, Georgia and Alabama, each began the year with Mater Dei alums as their starting quarterbacks.
Under Rollinson, Mater Dei has produced a decades-long line of standout players who have gone on to spots on college All-American teams and into the NFL.
Rollinson, whose personal motto is “You create the effort, God controls the outcome,” is a Mater Dei lifer. He graduated from the school in 1967, going on to USC where he was a defensive back and receiver for legendary coach John McKay and played in the 1970 Rose Bowl.
He was named Mater Dei’s head coach in 1989. The Monarchs are about to appear in their 15th CIF finals in Rollinson’s tenure and have won seven. They have won four national titles, 1994, 1996, 2017, 2018, and came within a few plays in 2019 of winning a third consecutive national crown. He is also listed as a special assistant to the school’s president. This is Rollinson’s 46th year on the Mater Dei faculty.
“The lessons derived from the discipline, teamwork and sacrifice instilled by Coach Rollinson have served thousands of his former players,” Rollinson’s bio on the Mater Dei football program’s website said. “…High school and football not only serve as learning experiences and opportunities to improve, they should also create enjoyable and memorable moments for each athlete.”
In February, Player 1 was a relative newcomer to the Mater Dei football program. He did not play the sport his first two years at the school before beginning to train with the football team in the fall of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the high school season.
During his time with the football program, he had frequently seen Mater Dei players engage in Bodies and had even been involved in the ritual once before in an incident that did not result in serious injury, according to a court filing. The game comes with an unwritten rule that players only punch their teammates in the torso between the hips and shoulders.
Bodies is also played against the backdrop of Mater Dei’s constant drive to be among the nation’s top prep football programs.
Monarch “coaching staff programs players to believe that being tough is one way to remain the best in the nation,” attorneys for Player 1 said in a court filing. “As part of toughening each other up, the football players play ‘Bodies.’”
Bodies, Player 1’s attorneys allege “is a ‘game’ made up of pure violence. In reality it’s not a game at all, but rather an arranged fistfight between two teammates. … The goal of Bodies is to hit a teammate until he can’t take it anymore and gives up. In an effort to fit in and be perceived as tough amongst teammates, the players sacrifice their physical health, beating each other in a sickening display that is at times videotaped by other players.
“Bodies is a hazing ritual among the football players. This ritual has existed for years, and is well known to the coaching staff of the Mater Dei Monarchs. When engaged in by testosterone-fueled, young male football players driven towards excellence by their football coaches, Bodies is a recipe for disaster.”
Around 2:40 p.m. on the afternoon of Feb. 4, Player 1 was getting ready for practice when he was encouraged by another teammate to participate in a game of Bodies with Player 2. Player 1 agreed, later saying he was trying to fit in and gain acceptance by showing he was tough enough to play for Mater Dei. Player 1 said he had not previously met Player 2 or the player who had organized the fight.
SCNG is not naming the players because of their ages.
“At that point I didn’t even know (Player 2’s) name,” Player 1 wrote in a statement provided to the school. “The next day I found it on social media.
“I also didn’t know (the teammate’s) name, the kid who asked me if I wanted to do Bodies with (Player 2). I found him in the yearbook.”
On a video, as the fight is about to begin, Player 1 shakes his head from side to side as if apprehensive.
The fight starts in the freshman locker room, the players exchanging punches to the torso area. At least four times during the initial encounter a Mater Dei player can be heard on a video of the fight directing a racial slur at Player 1, even though Player 1 is White.
“Get that (racial epithet), (Player 2),” the teammate shouts.
Both players were slipping as they fought, so the fight was moved next door to the varsity locker room.
Again more racial epithets are directed at Player 1. “Get that (racial epithet) (Player 2),” a player is heard shouting at least four more times. There is also yelling, screaming and roars of laughter audible on a video of the fight. But the video also shows other Mater Dei players sitting at their lockers getting dressed or looking at their cell phones, seemingly oblivious to the brawl.
The video shows that at one point Player 2 hit Player 1 in the face with a couple glancing blows. Player 1 responds with a wild, above-the-shoulder high swing that misses badly. Player 2 then throws Player 1 to the ground. Player 1 gets back up and is knocked down again by a hard haymaker punch to the side of his head. Other players are heard in the background making whooping sounds.
Player 1 gets up again and is struck by a hard punch to the face. “Oh, my God,” shouts one teammate in the background of the video.
Player 1 stops and holds his head in his hands, his right hand covering a pair of gashes over his right eye. But Player 2 lunges toward Player 1 and punches him in the face again, a blow that produces a loud smacking sound on the video.
“Hey, chill, chill, chill,” a teammate is heard in the background.
“What the (expletive),” Player 1 shouted at Player 2. “I thought this was Bodies.”
Player 2 is then heard directing a racial epithet at Player 1 on the video, a comment also alleged in the court filing.
“All right, it’s over,” another player is heard saying on the video.
Player 1 made his way to a restroom near the locker room. He looked in the mirror. There were approximately 2-inch gashes above each eyebrow. There was another cut between his right eyelid and eyebrow. His nose was flattened. These injuries are evident in more than a dozen photos taken in the days after the altercation that were reviewed by SCNG.
As Player 1 tried to stop the bleeding from the cuts other Mater Dei players approached him and warned him not to “snitch” on them, according to a police report and multiple other documents.
A cell phone recording of the altercation taken by one of the Mater Dei players who set up the fight was shared among Monarchs players, according to a court filing.
The player, the suit alleges, “filmed the incident on his cell phone, and then later disseminated it with intent to humiliate and embarrass (Player 1).”
A player also provided a cellphone video to Dunbar, the Mater Dei linebackers coach. Dunbar shared the video with David Nisson, an attorney representing Player 2. Nisson eventually provided the video to the Santa Ana PD.
After reviewing the video of the altercation, Santa Ana PD investigator David Angel concluded that Player 2’s second punch to Player 1’s face was the turning point in the fight.
Player 2, Angel wrote in a police report “punched (Player 1) on the right side of the face with his left hand before (Player 1) could strike.
“After this, it appeared as though (Player 1) was stunned for the first time in the game/fight. Up until this point, (Player 1) was moving forward and striking (Player 2) punch for punch after every exchange. After being hit this time, (Player 1) and stood in front of (Player 2) without moving while holding his right hand over his eyes. This was an apparent sign that he was done with the fight and could not continue the game. It is my opinion that at this moment (Player 1) was no longer in the fight due to being hurt by the punch. I believe the fact that (Player 1) stopped punching and moving toward (Player 2) and instead stood still and put his hand over his face, a reasonable person would recognize that (Player 1) was hurt and defenseless at that moment.
“At this time (Player 2) threw one final punch that was beyond the scope of the game. The last strike was a punch to a defenseless opponent as he was hurt and dazed from the previous punch, causing serious bodily damage to (Player 1’s) face.
“Based on the video evidence, it is clear that both of the boys involved were willing participants in ‘Bodies’ game.
“Based on the documented injuries, which included a broken nose and lacerations above both eyes, I am forwarding this report to the Juvenile District Attorney’s Office for filing felony battery charges on (Player 2).”
Mater Dei declined to say whether Player 2 or the Monarch directing racial epithets at Player 1 were disciplined.
While Player 1 was still struggling to stop the bleeding, he was approached by a member of the coaching staff who asked what had happened to him, according to a police report and other documents. Player 1 said he fell and hit his head on a sink.
When he was unable to stop the bleeding, Player 1 asked two Mater Dei trainers, Kevin Anderson and Christine Dahle, to provide treatment, according to a court filing and other documents. Anderson and Dahle, according to a court filing, “largely ignored” Player 1 and “instead prioritized” taping players who getting ready for practice, according to the court filing.
“By itself, this reveals a culture of Mater Dei and its focus on athletic success, rather than player safety,” the filing said. “Rather than tending to a boy who was literally bleeding from cuts to his head, and suffering from a traumatic brain injury and broken nose, Anderson and Dahle spent their time wrapping ankles and wrists so players could participate in practice.”
After he waited for approximately 30 minutes, Player 1 was eventually brought gauze by a student trainer to replace the blood-soaked gauze he had applied to the wounds, according to the court filing and other documents. The student trainer also brought Player 1 into the athletic trainers’ office where he continued to wait for Anderson and Dahle to provide treatment, according to the court filing and other documents.
Anderson asked Player 1 what had happened to him. Player 1 repeated the story that he had fallen and hit his head on a sink.
“Anderson made a facial expression that clearly revealed he understood the obvious impossibility of (Player 1’s) story,” a court filing said.
Anderson evaluated Player 1 for a possible concussion, according to Mater Dei records of two concussion exams.
“Based on (Player 1’s) subjective responses to the concussion test, and his clear injuries there was no doubt (Player1) had suffered a traumatic brain injury,” according to a court filing.
Although the head wounds continued to bleed, Anderson’s initial response was to provide Player 1 with more gauze. Anderson left Player 1 on a bed in the school’s sports medicine center, according to multiple documents.
“No physician was consulted, paramedics were not called to the scene, and (Player 1’s) parents were not notified,” according to a court filing.
“At one point, (Player 1) asked Anderson if there was anything Anderson could do to stop the bleeding. Anderson decided to glue the edges of the lacerations together before placing steri-strips along the lacerations. Unfortunately, Anderson connected the edges of the lacerations so poorly that the wounds created visible scars.
“Shockingly, Anderson did not call (Player 1’s) parents until approximately one hour and thirty minutes after the incident…Anderson knew how badly (Player 1’s) injuries looked and that he was clearly involved in a violent altercation. Thus, in an effort to shield its #1 ranked football team from scrutiny, efforts were made to downplay and/or cover up the latest incident caused by the athletic department’s toxic culture.”
Anderson did not respond to a request for comment.
Player 1’s father took him to an urgent care facility later that night and to a pediatrician the following day. In addition to the three cuts around the eyes, Player 1 suffered a concussion, eyes swollen, slurred speech and a fracture left nasal passage – a broken nose, according to the pediatrician’s report on the exam.
He underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital of Orange County on Feb. 10. According to the operation report, “patient is a 16-year-old boy male with a history of assault by a fellow football teammate six days prior in which he sustained multiple bodily injuries including a displaced comminuted nasal fracture as well as multiple soft tissue issue.”
Doctors “confirmed a displaced nasal fracture with evidence of comminuted fracture of the nasal bones on CT scan performed on 2/5/2021.”
Player 1’s father called Rollinson the night of the altercation and then emailed the coach again the following morning. Rollinson returned the father’s call later that day, Feb. 5.
“During the conversation, Rollinson apologized to (Player 1’s) father and said that he knew about Bodies, and he that his players frequently engaged in these activities,” a court filing said. “In fact, Rollinson dismissively said he would be a millionaire if he got paid $100 for every time he heard about Bodies or other physical rituals in which his players engaged.”
Rollinson also said during the conversation, according to a court filing, “he had a problem because (Player 2’s) father was one of Coach Rollinson’s assistant coaches, suggesting that (Player 2) was somehow protected from discipline because of these politics.”
Shortly thereafter, Player 1’s father received a telephone call from Mater Dei dean of students Tim O’Hara, who is also the running backs coach on Rollinson’s staff, according to court filings. O’Hara informed the father that the school was officially suspending Player 1, according to Mater Dei documents and court filings. At the time, Player 1 was unable to physically attend school according to a Mater Dei return physician’s form.
O’Hara did not respond to requests for comment.
Player 1’s father was outraged and attempted to arrange a meeting with O’Hara and Mater Dei principal Clare. Clare refused, according to a court filing “instead opting to be evasive and deflective to this day.”
The father contacted the Santa Ana PD on Feb. 8. Angel, the Santa Ana PD investigator, contacted Clare and Gutierrez, Mater Dei’s assistant principal for student services, on Feb. 11, and informed them of the criminal complaint.
“Principal Clare said they were aware of the incident and they were conducting their own internal investigation,” Angel wrote in his report on the conversation. “I told them I needed to speak with the parties involved, along with witnesses to the incident. Assistant Principal Gutierrez told me that he would not be able to provide me with any information regarding the incident. He could not provide me with any names, date, details of the battery, or any circumstances surrounding the incident.”
Angel was finally able to interview Rollinson and Kiernan, the school’s athletics director, with Gutierrez present on April 21, 69 days after Angel first reached out to Clare and Gutierrez, 76 days since the altercation.
According to a police report on the interviews, Rollinson said, “Angel, we have no hazing on our program. Never have, never will. I’ve been head for 32 years. Honestly, I’ve never even heard the word hazing used since 1989.”
The report also stated Rollinson said that this was “the first time he has heard of any of his players participating in the ‘Bodies’ game where participants punch each other until someone quits.”
By the time of Rollinson’s interview with the police, Player 1 had been gone from Mater Dei for two months. He left the school on Feb. 19.
Next to “reason for withdrawal” on the Mater Dei withdrawal form are two words – “SAFETY CONCERNS.”