On October 14, a melee broke out between two Georgia high school football rivals
One coach, trying to break up the fight, suffered serious injuries
A player from each team suffered a concussion
Some say the violence was fueled by talk via text messages and social media
Coach David Daniel’s worried pacing along the sidelines of a recent game doesn’t even begin to tell the story inside his mind. But the wound over his right eye gives you a sense of his pain inside, two weeks after he was caught in the middle of a post-game melee that sent him to a hospital.
Some say he was intentionally targeted by the other team. Others say it was trash talking run amok – including a text message by a coach – all set against a raging high school football rivalry in rural Georgia. Either way, a lifelong high school football coach now has bolts holding together his eye socket after it was shattered by a player’s football helmet.
“It was like if you had crushed up cornflakes, that’s what all this bone looked like,” Daniel said, motioning to his right eye.
On the night of October 14, Daniel’s team, the Screaming Devils of Warren County, defeated the Mighty Bulldogs of nearby Hancock County. As the Screaming Devils returned to the visiting team’s locker room, they found the door locked. While waiting for a helper on their team to return with the key, the losing home team walked by, on the way to their locker room, and that’s when it all began.
No one seems to know who or what started the incident, but officials from both schools say both teams threw and swung helmets.
“It only took one to get the brawl started. Someone did not make the right decision,” Hancock County Schools Superintendent Gwendolyn Reeves said. “Whether it came from our side, or Warren County’s side, I do not know.”
Warren County Schools Superintendent Carole Jean Carey said it was hard to tell what was going on because so many people were involved.
“We just saw this sea of people, and it was moving like waves,” Carey said. “Then all of a sudden, we saw a helmet go up.”
During the melee, sheriff’s deputies pepper sprayed the players, and a player from each team suffered a concussion. After the incident was broken up, no arrests were made.
Daniel says he was struck in the head with a helmet as he tried to intervene. He doesn’t remember much about the incident. He lost a tear duct, and it’s possible that he may need more surgery.
“It just makes no sense. I don’t understand it,” he said.
Carey, the Warren County schools superintendent, wants a full investigation to determine if Daniel was the target of an attack.
“I’m not making any judgments right now … I just have questions about how it could have happened and unfolded like that,” she said. “I think using a helmet, to smash somebody’s face in, is using a weapon. I do. And we are very lucky the hit didn’t move over just a little bit, and we could have had a dead coach.”
Those involved agree that the incident started a week before, with trash talking about the game in the community and on Facebook. All of the Facebook chatter has been pulled off of the site, but school administrators in both counties say it was alive and well in the week leading up to the game.
“There was talk on Facebook before this game. There was some back and forth on Facebook, maybe some text messages,” Carey said. “I’m sure that if you’re a team and you keep seeing either side trash talk here or there, or back and forth, I’m sure it gets you riled up inside.”
The heated exchange also continued after the incident on October 14. According to a Warren County school affidavit, a former coach for the Warren County Screaming Devils who is now a volunteer assistant coach with the Hancock Central High School team sent text messages to his former players following the game, including this one:
“Better stay yo stupid ass in wc (Warren County), B4 som1 get really hurt.”
And later that night, another text message, “How th[e] [expletive] I kno[w] about yall bull[expletive]. Yu started this [expletive] last week. Remember yu started this.”
A few days after the melee, Hancock County Sheriff Terrell Primus called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But he told CNN that he does not believe that Daniel was targeted, and he said the locker room’s door was not locked on purpose.
“It takes time to investigate anywhere from 100 to 120-some people that has to be investigated,” the sheriff said. “This is not something that is done in two days.”
State law enforcement officials say the investigation could take months.
“We have no time frame. There are too many circumstances beyond our control to get a large number of witnesses to be interviewed,” said John Bankhead of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
State law enforcement officials say they’re looking into all aspects of the case including what role social media played in escalating the trash talking.
The investigation will take place in these two rural northeastern Georgia counties, about 22 miles apart, both poor farming communities with high unemployment.
“The kids know each other. There are family members on both teams,” said coach Zachery Harris of Hancock Central High School.
Harris is also among those blaming social media for fanning the flames of the two schools’ rivalry.
“Facebook kinda keeps everything going. … So if I make a comment on Facebook that it was a great game, somebody may make a comment and say, ‘Y’all gonna get your butt whooped,’ and they go back and forth, and then, when they see each other, they’ve had this long conversation I have no idea about,” he said.
One school safety expert says that social media chatter and threats have a nationwide ripple effect that is forcing school officials to spend more time, money and energy on school security, at a time when dollars are hard to come by.
“Social media is increasing the communication speed to the point where threats that used to spread in hours and days now spread in minutes and seconds. And it’s escalating very quickly, and the violence can escalate along with it,” said Ken Trump, a school safety consultant. “School administrators now find themselves dealing with things that start at night and at home, that can spread to athletic events.”
But who threw the first punch in the fight that sent two teenagers and a coach to the hospital?
“I have no idea. They say we did, we say they did,” Harris said.
In addition to the social media issue, Harris says another part of the problem is peer pressure to retaliate – whether it’s in person or through social media – and what’s being taught at home.
As for Daniel, as he faces the possibility of more surgery to repair his crushed eye socket, he’s in pain and still has severe headaches.
“People want me to be hateful, and I can’t do that. I can’t do that,” he said. “I think it all goes back to what’s taking place in their home and who cares about them. I’m not going to paint these kids as different or bad.”