For All-Bay Rivers District center Nick Kepa, the idea of speaking in front of the seven-member Williamsburg-James City County School Board scared him a lot more than having to block Poquoson's nose guard.
"There were a lot of nerves," said Kepa, a junior on the Lafayette High football team. "My face turned red. But I wanted to tell (the school board) how much Coach (Paul) Wheeler meant to me as a motivator, how much he meant to the community and the whole football team."
The problem, unlike the large crowds Kepa plays in front of when wearing Lafayette blue and gold, is that he made this pitch to an empty stadium. The W-JCC School Board listened to Kepa, a teammate and parents of two former players in a closed session because they do not publicly discuss personnel matters.
That personnel matter is Paul Wheeler's request, recently denied by W-JCC Schools, to retract his resignation as the Rams' head football coach. Wheeler resigned following a complaint in October by the parent of a Lafayette player about how Wheeler treated his son during a practice.
Wheeler said that Lafayette's principal and athletic director investigated the complaint, dismissed it and told him to resume coaching the team. Wheeler said that days later he was told by Lafayette athletic director Dan Barner that the parent had taken the complaint to assistant superintendent Dianna Lindsay, and that Lindsay was planning to fire him as coach.
Wheeler said he offered his resignation, effective at the end of the 2010 football season, rather than have the incident become a distraction to his team. But Wheeler, who has guided the Rams to a school-record 82 wins and a state championship in 10 seasons, changed his mind following the season.
More than 350 who signed an "I Support Coach Paul Wheeler" petition addressed to W-JCC Schools during the past week believe he should get to stay as coach. About two dozen were on hand at the well-attended public school board session on Tuesday.
"I'd like to see this put on the agenda and that Paul Wheeler is reinstated as coach," Jeff Bigelow, father of former Ram Jake Bigelow, said as he stood in the hallway before entering the public session. "I can't tell you how much he has meant to my son. Coach Wheeler taught him how life is, that everything doesn't go sometimes as you want it, but that you to cope with what you get."
Kelly Parsons, mother of former Ram Logan Pignotti, said, "I'm here to support Coach Wheeler and have him reinstated. I think he helped develop my son's character, on and off the field, (about) grades, making sure they got to school and weren't late."
But Wheeler's supporters did not get to make those points during the televised open session. Board member Joe Fuentes was clear at the outset that, "Personnel matters are not handled in open session."
Kepa and the others invited to speak earlier at the closed session — teammate Brandon Fetty and the parents of two former Rams' players — said they appreciated board's receptiveness upon presenting the petition of support for Wheeler.
"They seemed genuinely interested," said Marcotte, father of former Ram Andrew Marcotte, who initiated the petition a week ago. "We have high hopes that they'll find a resolution to the problem.
"They made it clear that they would not entertain any questions or give any opinions. I think Mr. (Steven) Constantino (whose first day as W-JCC Schools' superintendent was Tuesday) is a great guy and that he's going to take this as an opportunity to bring the community closer to the school board."
Fetty and Joe McClain, son of former Ram Jake McClain, hope so.
"I told them how much we love him and how much he loves and respects us," said Fetty, a Lafayette senior. "I wanted them to know that Coach Wheeler is one of the few people you meet who puts you on the right path."
Said McClain, "I'd hate to see Lafayette lose Paul Wheeler the football coach, but I'd hate it more to see Lafayette lose Paul Wheeler the role model."