The Trophy Son

When Kyle Rutherford scored a touchdown, his parents cheered. When he threw a strike, they dreamed of college glory. And when he was benched, they took his high school to federal court.

In her immaculate kitchen, remembering the saddest day, Mrs. Sonja Rutherford's lip began to tremble.

"It makes me cry even now," she said, sniffling. "Sorry." And she reached for the Kleenex.

They had such hopes for that day. It was May 17, 1996, and Kyle Rutherford's whole family -- his mother, Sonja; his father, Scott; his brother who had driven from Austin; an aunt and uncle from Fort Worth; another aunt and uncle from North Carolina -- they had all come out to watch Kyle pitch. It would be the last game of his senior year, unless Cypress Falls High won. Kyle's parents believed college scouts would be watching. His mother called it "the game of his life."

They were waiting for this game to begin, this ultimate contest that would return glory to their home, when Mr. Rutherford saw Kyle, his would-be hero, not walking onto the field but plodding off of it, speaking those horrible, unspeakable words.

Benched again, said Kyle.
Mr. Rutherford became despondent then. Mrs. Rutherford began weeping. And sitting nearby, the football coach seems to have simply been waiting to watch a baseball game. Wayne Hooks had been through more than 30 high school football seasons, but he had never been to a baseball game like this one.

The Rutherfords shared their pain with the principal, who called the football coach down from the stands and asked him to explain what had happened on the baseball team. He said he could not, and the principal shrugged.

Kyle's brother and one of his uncles stepped forth. They told Coach Hooks that he was, among other things, one "sorry individual." Violence seemed imminent until the principal threatened to call the police. After they departed, Coach Hooks was just relaxing again when he was approached by a friend of Kyle's and was told he was "not much of a man." In fact, the coach was "the most despicable man" the fellow had ever met.

Hooks took all of this into consideration, but it was the confrontation with Mrs. Rutherford that made the deepest impression. If she'd had a gun, she probably would have shot him, she said later. Instead, with her face contorted in anger and the tears streaming down, Mrs. Rutherford shouted, "When are you going to leave our family alone? This is not over! We'll see you in court!"

And somewhere, out on the field, there was a baseball game. Kyle Rutherford stayed on the bench as the Golden Eagles went through four pitchers and lost 8-4. The trainer drove a truck over to the dugout. The football coach and the baseball coach were smuggled off to safety.

The Rutherfords live in a Cypress-Fairbanks subdivision called Hearthstone, where the houses are large and the cars are new, but where dreams die young and people trudge through ordinary lives with utterly no hope of playing big-league ball.

The death of Kyle's particular dream left the Rutherford family in agony. As a result of the benching of May 17, 1996, and related tragedies, Mr. Rutherford is said to have become a "social recluse." Mrs. Rutherford suffered sleeplessness, extreme stress and "general weepiness." And Kyle Rutherford did not get a college scholarship and grew depressed.

Several months after the game, the Rutherfords recited these woes in filing a federal lawsuit. They alleged that Wayne Hooks, who was Cy Falls athletic director as well as football coach, was the mastermind of a conspiracy that violated Kyle's constitutional rights, cost him a scholarship and caused all of them "severe emotional damage." The family asked for damages in the amount "the court deems appropriate." By January 23, Judge John Rainey is expected to send the case to trial, or to dismiss it altogether.

The Rutherfords, in the meantime, continue to mourn. Mr. Rutherford has only recently begun reentering the larger world. At home, he and his wife sit in their soft armchairs, watching the pros screw up on television. Mrs Rutherford will say, "Gee, Kyle could have done better than that." And Mr. Rutherford answers curtly, "Yup." She still occasionally weeps. When the basketball player Latrell Sprewell choked his coach, Mrs. Rutherford understood how he felt.

"Choking's too good for them," she said.
As for Kyle, he had to settle finally for an academic scholarship at Texas Christian. The lawsuit that bears his name was not his idea, and to avoid talking about it, he rarely comes home. His mother and father fight on without him. Mrs. Rutherford admits the case has become her obsession. "We're doing this for Kyle," she says, and the same energy she once spent helping Kyle's teams, she now devotes to suing his coaches. Some nights, she stays up until 3 a.m., reading depositions, scribbling comments in the margins ("liar!"), pounding out letters to the lawyer. She spoke at length for this story. When the school's lawyer advised the coaches not to cooperate, Mrs. Rutherford provided their depositions.

More than anything, she wants to be understood. After the benching, the Rutherfords tried not to discuss it with acquaintances, but after making it a federal case, they were happy to talk with the entire world. The lawsuit, if anything, seems to have made the whole situation less embarrassing for them. Its message, after all, is that Kyle was never benched for any shortage of ability. He was only the victim of extremely wicked coaches.

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