EDINBURG — During an at times tense executive committee hearing Monday morning, the University Interscholastic League voted unanimously to levy additional penalties and punishments on Edinburg High School, Bobcats head football coach JJ Leija and defensive lineman Emmanuel Duron after an incident Dec. 3 when Duron made “inappropriate physical contact with an official,” after being ejected from a District 31-6A zone play-in game against the PSJA High Bears.

The UIL’s five-person executive committee voted unanimously to suspend Duron, a senior, for all UIL-sanctioned activities for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year.

Additionally, the committee voted unanimously to place Leija under a one-year probation period beginning at the start of the 2021-22 academic year and to place all of Edinburg High’s athletic programs on a probationary period that will begin immediately and conclude at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

If additional infractions occur during those probationary periods, the UIL stated it would seek more “severe” punishments for Leija and Edinburg High athletic program that could potentially disqualify all of the school’s athletic teams from participating in postseason play for up to three full years and/or suspend Leija from participating in UIL-sanctioned events as a coach.

The UIL also issued public and written reprimands to both individuals as well as Edinburg High.

“We as a district understand that it is a very unfortunate incident for the team, as the students and coaching staff worked very hard throughout the year for this season, but it is important that our district abides by the rules and regulations set forth by the UIL,” Edinburg CISD interim superintendent Gilbert Garza said. “Our district’s leadership agrees with the committee also that such incidents are not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Moving forward, our district is committed to developing and implementing a plan of action to proactively deter any future misconduct by any future student-athlete.”

“Could we have done better in the way we handled the incident? Yes, we could have,” he added. “We have learned from this teachable moment and we will make every effort in the future to make sure an incident like such will not occur again.”

“Everyone on this call will agree that we cannot tolerate this kind of behavior, even the student who has apologized would admit that,” UIL Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said. “We have an obligation to respond from what (Edinburg CISD) has given us. … I think (superintendent Garza) represented his district quite well and he did what we believe was appropriate, and he did it swiftly because it needed to be done quickly.”

Duron, the Bobcats’ star defensive lineman, was ejected about midway through the second quarter from a District 31-6A zone play-in game between Edinburg High and PSJA High at Richard R. Flores Stadium in Edinburg.

Duron was initially flagged for roughing the passer after pushing a Bears offensive lineman to the turf and attempted to make a tackle on PSJA High freshman quarterback Jaime Lopez after the officials had already whistled the play dead.

The Edinburg High senior was then given a second flag for unsportsmanlike conduct after saying something in Spanish to official Fred Gracia, a 58-year-old referee with 27 years of experience officiating with the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO), according to multiple eyewitnesses who were on the sideline when the incident occurred.

Assistant coaches then came onto the field to separate Duron and Gracia as well as walk Duron back to the team’s sideline while Leija questioned other officials about the nature of the flags on the field.

Gracia announced through his microphone that Duron had been ejected from the contest and moments later, Duron charged onto the field and turned a verbal altercation into a physical one by lowering his shoulder and colliding with Gracia, who was caught by surprise, chest-to-chest at full speed before coaches and teammates held him back.

Duron was then escorted out of Richard R. Flores Stadium by four Edinburg CISD police officers who were working security at the game. Duron was not handcuffed at that time. He did not return to the premises again that evening and was arraigned in Edinburg Municipal Court the following morning.

Duron, an 18-year-old, was charged with class A assault during an arraignment and booked into Hidalgo County jail before posting a $10,000 surety bond through O. Castaneda Bail Bonds in Edinburg early that evening.

“I’d like to say that I’m sorry for what happened to my coaches, my family and to the UIL,” Duron said Monday.

Gracia, the official, stayed down on the turf for several minutes before being medically evaluated for a potential shoulder injury and concussion-like symptoms in an ambulance outside of the stadium. Gracia was taken to a hospital in nearby Mercedes later that evening for additional medical evaluation.

The UIL’s executive committee applauded Edinburg High and Edinburg CISD officials for their swift and decisive actions in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Edinburg High administrators suspended Duron from school for three days, suspended him from participating in all extra-curricular activities for the remainder of the school year and mandated that he attend weekly counseling sessions, as well.

Edinburg CISD administrators also called an emergency school board meeting and elected to remove the Bobcats from the Class 6A Division I Texas high school football playoffs this season, a decision affirmed by the UIL, after the team clinched a postseason berth by virtue of defeating PSJA High 35-21. 

“We have to protect our kids, but we also have to protect our officials,” said Mike Mulvert, one of five UIL executive committee members who led Monday’s hearing. “You took a very good step, a bold step and a needed step in removing your team from the playoffs.”

UIL personnel stated Monday that the organization was prepared to call an emergency meeting the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 4, to take the same action before the district certification deadline for postseason play Saturday, Dec. 5.

“We don’t threaten and we don’t try to go above and beyond what the Texas Open Meetings Act says. We have full knowledge of how these need to be conducted, but we could have called an emergency meeting because the actions of that student and what happened at that game had to be dealt with in an appropriate manner. Thankfully, the school took care of it.”

The UIL executive committee noted that it was dissatisfied with elements of Edinburg High’s reporting of the incident, which failed to mention that Duron was disciplined for a similar incident that occurred in a soccer game in February 2020.

In the school district’s written report to the UIL regarding the incident, district personnel stated that Duron’s behavior was “completely out of character,” a statement that UIL officials pushed back against strongly.

“It’s a little curious to me on the disciplinary record piece because it’s our understanding that even though you indicated this was out of character for this young man that there was an incident last soccer season,” Mulvert said. “It brings about the discussion of what was dealt with and what was done during this time frame. … He was ultimately removed from the soccer program, but it is our understanding that a few days later, he represented Edinburg at a state wrestling competition.”

In an interview with The Monitor in early October, Leija said, “Emmanuel is a tough player. He’s not going to shy away from contact and he’s not going to back away from anybody. He learns to live through adversity. We tell these kids, ‘Remember where you come from and that you have to work hard for everything you want in life.’ He’s been doing that. Last year was his first year in wrestling, he did the best he could and the guy advanced to state. We’re hoping that he’s gotten a little bit better with his character and that he can lead this group and be a true leader.”

In a game against crosstown rival Edinburg Vela, Duron slapped a red card out of an official’s hand and shoved against his chest with both hands before being removed from the field by coaches.

Duron was suspended from participating in soccer for the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but days later competed in the UIL’s Class 6A state wrestling championships. Duron finished in fifth place in the 220-pound weight class at the 2020 state wrestling championships, where he was the only student-athlete representing Edinburg CISD.

Edinburg CISD athletic director Rogelio Garza said the school district deferred to Edinburg High administrator’s judgment regarding how to proceed after Duron’s inappropriate physical contact with a referee on the soccer pitch, citing the district’s “site-based management” protocols.

No official report was filed by that official and Edinburg CISD’s decision to suspend Duron for the remainder of the season was an internal one without any input from the UIL, which was unaware of that incident until a similar incident played out on the football field earlier this month.

Edinburg High principal Yesenia Molina stated that after speaking with the boys soccer team, Duron and his family regarding that incident, it was determined that Duron would be able to resume participation in extracurricular activities at the beginning of the new school year under the condition he remain on probation with any additional incidents resulting in his immediate suspension from all athletic activities.

She also added that Duron was allowed to compete in the wrestling state championships since complaints about his inappropriate behavior were limited to just the Bobcats boys soccer program at that time.

“We removed the student from the remainder of the soccer season, disciplinary action was taken on the student, a parent conference was held with the parent,” Molina said. “The parent tried to appeal the decision and it was denied at my level and it was denied at the (athletic director’s) level with our district. In speaking and meeting with the wrestling coach, the student and the parent, he had zero incidents regarding his behavior and his conduct in wrestling. It was the first time we had seen anything like that.”

“Because the student had had zero incidents, particularly in wrestling, and he had already received his consequences with the other sport, (Leija and I) made a decision to allow him to compete (in the 2020 wrestling state championships). We had zero concerns,” she added. “At the time of the soccer incident, we did advise Emmanuel and his parents that if there was any other issue in any other extracurricular activity at Edinburg High School that he would be dismissed from participating in all extracurricular activities. … We are about giving opportunities to kids and that’s what we thought we were doing at that time, never (thinking) that he would again engage in such misconduct.”

Duron was named District 31-6A’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 2019 high school football season and was tabbed as The Monitor’s Boys Wrestler of the Year in March 2020. Duron led the Bobcats in both tackles (102) and sacks (eight) through four games this season in the lead up to his physical confrontation with a referee earlier this month.

Edinburg High and Edinburg CISD also announced updated guidelines on how coaches and district personnel are to conduct themselves in any similar future instances, including mandating that a minimum of two coaches go onto the field or court to remove the player from the competition immediately after being ejected.

Furthermore, the UIL added that it has begun working in coordination with TASO to craft language and rules specifically applicable to future instances of inappropriate contact between student-athletes and officials in any UIL-sanctioned event moving forward. The UIL already has that power but plans to formalize the new rules and procedures as soon as its next legislative council hearing, which is currently scheduled for June 2021.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch