WHEN A COACH PADDLED A PLAYER, THEIR LIVES WERE TURNED UPSIDE DOWNSPARE THE ROD? INTENTIONS WERE GOOD; METHODS ARE DEBATABLE

They called it “getting the wood.” It was a paddle or a stick several inches thick, and the coach gave it to you smack across the butt, sometimes alone in his office, sometimes in front of the whole team. The number of whacks depended on what you did, and how badly you did it.

Joel (Tony) Blankenship got the wood in his day. He attended Detroit’s Murray-Wright High School in the late ’80s. He took his whacks, like most of his teammates. It never bothered him or scarred him emotionally. Parents didn’t complain.

“Put it this way,” he says now, narrowing his eyes, “in those days, my father used to come to practice and watch it. OK?”

These are not those days.

So when Tony Blankenship became the football coach at his old high school, and started giving the wood to his players, eventually one of them objected. Went home. Told his mother. She saw the marks. Took him to the hospital.

And now, after a community uproar, a criminal investigation, a hearing, a five-day suspension, a transfer of the player, and a possible civil lawsuit, Blankenship sits at a table in Detroit and insists he was just “trying to make my kids into better people.”

And a few miles away, at another table, the mother sits and says, “How is hitting my child going to make him a better person? I didn’t send him to school for a father figure; I sent him for an education.”

This is a story about good intentions and questionable methods. If you feel strongly that teachers and coaches should never touch their students — as is the law — then you may come down hard against Blankenship and what he did.

If, on the other hand, you feel that certain students in certain schools are crying out for any form of guidance or discipline, that we are bereft of coaches who care about their players’ grades, manners or futures, then you may wonder if political correctness has claimed yet another victim.

Either way, know this: “Getting the wood,” according to everyone at Murray-Wright, is now history.

“The wood is dead,” Blankenship says.

The scars are another matter.

His dream job

“When was the first time you used the wood on a player?”

“I honestly don’t remember,” Blankenship says.

He is talking at a Detroit restaurant, over a glass of pop. At 30, his face retains a cheeky youthfulness more suited to a college kid, which is the way many around here remember him. Blankenship was a defensive back for Michigan under Bo Schembechler and Gary Moeller.

During those years, while his teammates dreamt of the NFL, Blankenship dreamt of coming back to the city. He told teammates he wanted “to be the youngest high school football coach in Detroit history.”

He darn near did it. At 26, after four years as an assistant, Blankenship took over the Murray-Wright football program when his former coach — who allegedly used to paddle Blankenship and his teammates — moved over to coach the basketball team.

This was 1997. Blankenship inherited the helmets, the whistle, the playbook — and the wood.

What he didn’t inherit was the old climate of tolerance.

That was where the trouble started.

“When was the wood used as punishment?” Blankenship is asked.

“It always depended on the kid,” he replies. “There were some kids who never got it. And before I went to it, I always asked myself, ‘Is there any other way? How many times should I tell him to go to class? How many times should I tell him to respect his teachers?’

“We always talked first. The wood was sort of the last resort. And it was never about football.

“It was about life.”

Indeed, Blankenship — who once benched his starting quarterback and missed out on the state playoffs because the kid didn’t go to class — insists he never struck a player over a missed tackle or a dropped pass.

In fact, most of the physical discipline, he says, came in the off-season. Getting the wood had to do with grades, talking back to adults, being late, leaving campus. And the individual teen, he says, was always considered.

“There were some kids you would never use the wood on,” he says. “As a teacher you get a feel for kids. You know which ones can be screamed at and which ones can’t. Which ones you need to talk to and which ones that won’t work with.

“If a kid came from a background of abuse, physical or emotional, you could never use the wood on him. It would only make things worse.”

Blankenship, who also teaches social studies at Murray-Wright, hails from a tightly knit, two-parent family — his father is a Baptist minister. He believed he had a good feel for all his players.

For three years — 1998, 1999, 2000 — no one lodged a complaint.

And then came 2001.

The talented freshman

Omi Judkins is a 15-year-old freshman with a soft, round face perched atop a grown man’s body. He already stands 6-feet-3 and weighs 300 pounds. A promising center on the Murray-Wright team, he is a kid who, by his own admission, looked up to his coach.

“I wanted to be like him,” Omi says. “He is a good man and a smart man, and so I figured if he said that getting the wood was gonna make me a better person, then I would be a better person.”

Judkins, meeting with a reporter in the morning before school, speaks softly but clearly, in the slightly embarrassed manner typical to a teenager dealing with adults. He says he was aware of “the wood” and was even paddled once before by Blankenship — over an argument between Omi and an older player.

He didn’t complain that time “because it didn’t hurt.”

The second time, Judkins says, was different. It was late January, and report cards had come out. As was customary, players who did poorly were getting the wood. This was after school, in the weight room, where players routinely gathered to work out and keep the team camaraderie all year long.

Judkins had gotten D’s and F’s. That meant a certain number of whacks. Other players — perhaps seven or eight — took their hits as usual (which meant across the seat of their pants, with their back turned to the coach). Judkins says he was paddled three times before he turned around and objected.

“When I turned around, like I wanted to go, Coach Blankenship started lecturing me,” Judkins says. “He told me, ‘Are you gonna let the team down now, after everything they’ve done to help make you a better person?’ I didn’t want to do that, so I let him finish.”

Judkins says he was paddled perhaps five to seven more times. He later went to the bathroom, pulled down his pants, and examined his butt.

“It was red and swelling,” he says.

Still, he had no intention of complaining. He went home, and his mother, Latonya Pruett, a former security officer now on disability, noticed the way he was walking and sitting.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Why are you walking that way?”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean, nothing?”

“I got the wood.”

“What wood?”

“At school.”

“Someone hit you?”

“Coach.”

“Your coach hit you?”

“Yeah.”

“Let me see.”

Judkins pulled down his pants, and showed his mother the marks.

The next day she was at school with her son, insisting on a meeting.

And when Tony Blankenship entered the office, he knew, immediately, that the old way of doing things was gone forever.

Section 380.1312 of the Detroit School Code clearly states that a teacher
“shall not inflict or cause to be inflicted corporal punishment upon any pupil under any circumstance.”

Just the same, Blankenship and, to be fair, other coaches in the Detroit school system over the years, where “getting the wood” has sometimes been an accepted practice, either were unfamiliar with the rule and its interpretation, deliberately ignored it, or somehow felt that sports were outside its realm, and schools would look the other way.

“That meeting with Omi and his mother was the first time I experienced anyone complaining about the wood,” Blankenship says. “It was a pretty intense conversation. His mother was upset, and understandably so.

“She said her son shouldn’t have to be paddled to play football. I told her it wasn’t about him playing football. I was trying to get him to understand that to make it in the world, he has to keep his grades up.

“I would never do anything to deliberately hurt him.”

Blankenship says that Omi seemed embarrassed by the attention, and was satisfied with an apology. The coach promised it would never happen again. The principal and vice principal claimed they had been unaware of the practice, but also promised it would end immediately.

“I was so saddened by the whole thing,” Blankenship says, “especially by the way his mother felt. I have a conscience. I’m a parent, too.

“I tried to explain to her where I came from, that I want these kids to leave here after four years having something to give society . . .”

The parent’s role

Latonya Pruett was not moved. When Blankenship told her of the “tradition” of the wood, how he had received it years before, along with many others, she wondered how a practice could go on for so long without the school knowing it.

“I don’t believe that and it’s not right,” she says. “It’s a criminal act. If I hit my kid like that and he showed those marks to a hospital, they would come and take me away.”

She sits alongside her son, who dwarfs her in size. “How does a coach know what my kid needs? If he messed up in school, that’s not the coach’s job. He didn’t fail him. He’s not his parent — I am.”

She says she tried to make this point at the school board hearing that followed the week after the incident, “but they acted like they were only sorry they got caught.”

“The coach seemed to have his chest stuck out,” she says. “My son had to transfer schools. We wanted to get him a counselor to deal with this. We still haven’t gotten any help from the school board.

“My son had to deal with all the other kids in school angry at him, looking at him all mad. Why should he have to put up with that?

“I don’t care what he thinks he was doing. It’s just not right.”

The bitter aftermath

The fallout from the wood has been bruising in its own right. Blankenship was investigated for child abuse — the Wayne County prosecutor ultimately decided not to pursue charges — and was suspended from Murray-Wright, without pay, for five days. He returned to school late last week. He has endured people pointing at him on the streets and in fast-food joints, coming up and saying,
“Are you the coach who hits his kids?”

Meanwhile, Omi Judkins has transferred to another high school. He never got the counseling that his mother says she requested from the school board. And he heard criticism of his own. The community around Murray-Wright rushed to support Blankenship, at meetings, in letters, in conversations. People said it was a welcome change that a coach cared enough about his kids to involve himself in their lives outside of sports. They said many of the players, without father figures of their own, looked to Blankenship as a compass for right and wrong. In some cases, parents would actually call Blankenship to encourage him to discipline their sons.

As for Latonya Pruett?

She went to a lawyer.

“Omi is a damaged kid now,” says James Elliott, her attorney. “He’s lost his friends, his social life is affected, he’s had to change schools. There are people in that community who look at him like he’s garbage.”

Pruett is mulling her options. She says she wants Blankenship to accept responsibility for a criminal act. When asked whether she plans to sue the school board for civil damages — something her critics claim is her overriding motivation in this — she says she hasn’t decided yet.

There’s an old Biblical expression, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” which is often used to justify the corporal punishment of children. But just as the wood at Murray-Wright seemed to evolve into a different meaning over the years, so, too, has that quote. The words come from Proverbs, 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

So what does that mean? To hit is to love? To not hit is to hate? Latonya Pruett admits she has hit her son many times.

“I’ve spanked him. I’ve whupped him. I even used a belt on him if he needed it.”

Over his grades?

“Sometimes over his grades. But so what? I’m his mother.”

And Tony Blankenship is not his father.

Was it a conspiracy of silence all these years? Or a good tradition that, like nuns slapping wrists with rulers, has simply passed its time?

“It’s a new day,” Blankenship says, “and I have to accept that. I gotta find another way to show my players that I love them.

“But I hope this isn’t a black mark on me forever.”

He pauses.

“I didn’t kill anybody.”

A few miles away, Latonya Pruett is asked whether it matters that so many other families, when made aware of the paddling, didn’t object.

“Not at all,” she says firmly. “I object.”

Remember when parents used to roll up their sleeves before a spanking and say,
“This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you”?

Strange as it sounds, in the case of Blankenship and Judkins, it was true for both of them.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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