The Trophy Son

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.

Their story was picked up by the Associated Press, and eventually appeared in a syndicated column called "News of the Weird." Mrs. Rutherford quickly fired off a letter to the author. "How can you," she wrote, "make a mockery out of our attempt to fight for justice?"

Which is to say, how can you laugh? If anyone in the Rutherfords' circle had been able to laugh, then maybe the family wouldn't have found itself in federal court. But laughing would have required a sense of humor, which would have required perspective. And in all the passion of Texas high school sports, perspective is often lost.

"If you knew the important issues at stake," Mrs. Rutherford went on, "you would not be making a joke out of our son's painful experience."

She is a small, nervous woman whose mouth in repose wears a look of dread. Returning to his former self, Mr. Rutherford is amiable, with a Texas twang, and seems like the insurance salesman he is.

He doesn't know if his children could have grown up without an interest in sports. Mr. Rutherford's father, who was the water boy in high school, always threw balls at his boy. In time, Mr. Rutherford became a high school quarterback and a pitcher and even earned a football scholarship to Rice University. Deep on the depth chart, he quit the team in his sophomore year. More than 25 years later, he still spends part of every day regretting this.

The Rutherfords married while still in college, and after graduation, quickly settled into conventional roles. She became the homemaker, and he the breadwinner. He always managed to work in jobs that allowed ample time at home. When they began having children, they both agreed their priority, as Mrs. Rutherford said, was "raising decent human beings."

Like his own father, Mr. Rutherford threw balls at his children. The first of their trio was a good athlete but preferred solitary sports. He grew up to become a golf pro in Austin. Kyle was next: He was built like his daddy, and right away, his daddy noticed his "awesome" hand-eye coordination. Everyone seemed to notice. In the front yard, Mr. Rutherford pitched plastic balls to his two-year-old, and a neighbor said, "That kid's coordination is great!" It was the kind of story the Rutherfords never forgot.

They recall the victories of Kyle's early history as others might remember the heroics of Babe Ruth. Kyle was just six when he chipped the ball in from the sand and won the eight-and-under golf tournament. "That was a big moment!" Mrs. Rutherford said. He was seven and seeded tenth when he won his division at a swim meet. After he began playing T-ball, he hit so many home runs that even Mrs. Rutherford got bored.

Kyle never had a problem with his coach until his coach wasn't his father. Coach Rutherford always taught the fundamentals of the game, but above all, he said, he stressed teamwork. Nothing irritated him more than "a kid who thought he was a star and screamed for the ball." His own son was a team player "100 percent," said the coach.

"He lived a charmed life," Mrs. Rutherford said. "He was always the little star."

Kyle grew up wearing NFL jerseys like many boys, but also developed a stylized signature, suitable for autographs. When he got to high school, just like his daddy, he became a quarterback and a pitcher.

As Kyle led his team on the field, his parents led the supporters on the sidelines. Since Cy Falls was a new school, Mrs. Rutherford didn't want Kyle to suffer from its lack of tradition. Together, she and her husband founded the booster club. For two and a half years, they spent nearly every spare hour raising money, setting up the concession stand, selling ads for the weekly program. They didn't mind. Their son was the quarterback.

Kyle's father talked about football wherever he was -- in the insurance office, at lunch, in the locker room of the country club where he played golf. More than anywhere, he talked about it at the dinner table. Until the next game, the last game was just about all he had to discuss with his son. "High school football's about the most fun you'll have in your entire life," said Mr. Rutherford.  

On game days, all the parents would sit together with their programs and binoculars and video cameras. Mrs. Rutherford said it was very exciting to be the mother of the quarterback, "but I kept telling myself, 'Don't let it go to your head!' " Kyle's status could change at any time, she knew, but it was always injury that she feared ("You read about broken necks, you know"). During the games, each time an opponent would lay hands on her son, Mrs. Rutherford would lay hands on her husband, shrieking and slapping him until Kyle rose unharmed. It was such a distraction to Mr. Rutherford that he chose eventually to sit apart from his wife.

Mr. Rutherford enjoyed his place among the parents. He was grateful when someone said they heard the coach say that Kyle was the best freshman quarterback he'd ever seen. Mr. Rutherford believed it. He came to believe that Kyle had a gift: He could throw a football better than anyone in town.

"I know I'm his father," Mr. Rutherford said, "but I'm objective when it comes to this."

They had two glorious years, during which the young Golden Eagles crushed nearly everyone they played. Perhaps on the strength of these seasons, Kyle began receiving form letters from college recruiters, including one from Texas A&M that read, "You are now the focus of our recruiting efforts."

The Rutherfords seem to have interpreted these as promissory notes, as though it were just a matter of time. In Kyle's junior year, the school fielded its first varsity squad, and it was then that everything changed. Coach Hooks and his assistants became much more serious. Every time Kyle came off the field, they seemed to have a new complaint. From the stands, the Rutherfords could see the coaches red in the face, shouting at their boy. They hesitated to complain. They feared the coaches would retaliate by scuttling the scholarships.

Anyway, Kyle began to falter. He threw critical interceptions. When the rush came, he panicked, exhibiting what the coaches called "shaky feet." After the seventh game, when he threw four interceptions, the coaches told Kyle Rutherford to have a seat.

He played in none of the final three games. Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford began to suffer the "severe emotional damage" of which they would later complain. When the season was over, they finally sat down with Coach Hooks. They told him he was a bad coach. To any trained eye, Kyle was obviously more talented than his replacement. Surely, Hooks saw this. The Rutherfords came to view him not as an incompetent coach but as a crooked one. They saw only one way to explain the fact that Kyle sat on the bench: His replacement was the nephew of a former superintendent, who must have cut a deal with Coach Hooks.

"I don't know how else he could play. It was not ability," said Mr. Rutherford. (The player in question would later make the all-district team.)

Mr. Rutherford extracted from Coach Hooks a promise that Kyle would be treated fairly the next year. When Hooks gave his word on that, Mrs. Rutherford was skeptical, but Mr. Rutherford was fully assured Kyle would again be Cy Falls' starting quarterback.

He was. He wasn't. And then he was. Mr. Rutherford, who was in the hospital for the first game, had the tape brought to him and was dismayed. Coach Hooks had decided to alternate Kyle with the other quarterback from series to series. Hooks said later that Kyle had worked hard for four years and deserved to play some, but the Rutherfords were not consoled.

At home, the grief began setting in. Kyle would try to talk football with his father, but his father would only grunt. "Talk to him!" Mrs. Rutherford pleaded privately with her husband. But Mr. Rutherford said, "It's too depressing."

Kyle stayed in his room with the door closed. Mr. Rutherford saved his words for God. "Lord," he prayed, "you've blessed him with so much ability -- why won't you let him use it?"

Still, their star did not shine. Kyle felt worthless on the bench. In the field, he was rarely allowed to pass. The Golden Eagles were losing nearly every week, and in the middle of the sixth game, Mrs. Rutherford watched Kyle trudge off the field and knew their football dream was over. She borrowed the keys of the parent who had driven them, and she went to cry alone in the van.  

Later, Kyle and the team listened as Hooks explained that they were losers. Then Kyle stepped into the coach's office and told him football just wasn't fun anymore, and well, "I guess I quit." Hooks shouted for the assistants to clean out Rutherford's locker, and that was that.

Walking into the night, Kyle found his father waiting for him. For the first time in his life, Kyle saw his father cry. Kyle cried, too. In the parking lot by the gym, they cried together.

Grief fell over the Rutherford home like a wet blanket. "It was like someone died, almost," said Mrs. Rutherford. "We all took it hard."The Rutherfords quit the booster club and threw away the plaque they received for their service. They shut themselves inside their home. Without football to speak of, Mr. Rutherford quit his golf club and avoided the restaurants where once he had held forth so proudly. "I just got tired of going around people, trying to answer questions I can't answer," he explained. Mrs. Rutherford, by then, was fully afflicted with "general weepiness." At night, she lay awake thinking about her son, who lay awake, just thinking.

In the darkness of mourning, the only hope the Rutherfords saw was that some recruiter might pick up what Coach Hooks had put down. And then as January arrived, there were thoughts of baseball. Baseball always brought glory. Kyle was a pitcher with an 85 mile-an-hour fastball, said Mr. Rutherford.

"And a knuckle drop," Mrs. Rutherford added.
Baseball gave them many reasons for hope, not least of which was a coach who still believed in Kyle. From Kyle's freshman year right through the lawsuit, Coach Archie Hayes continued to believe Kyle was "a great kid," though one who sometimes made mistakes and had to learn from them. Such was the coach's faith in Kyle that before Kyle's senior year, Hayes sent a letter to college recruiters urging them to take a look at "the heart and soul of our pitching staff," a player who would be "an asset to anyone's program."

Kyle was supposed to have a wonderful season, but he and his family had problems forgetting football. Coach Hayes noticed that Kyle didn't practice as hard as before. Kyle blamed Coach Hooks. The baseball season hadn't yet begun when Kyle came home and announced, "When is Coach Hooks going to leave me alone?"

"What do you mean?" Mrs. Rutherford asked.
"Mom, I didn't get captain!"

The Rutherfords saw no other way to explain it: Since Coach Hayes liked Kyle, and Kyle's leadership qualities were evident to anyone, Coach Hooks must have rigged the players' election of their captain.

In nearly everything that went wrong that baseball season, the Rutherfords found the football coach to blame. He became to them a large, looming Satan of sports, bent on the destruction of Kyle, simply because his parents had dared question a coach.

For some time, the Rutherfords bore their injuries well and soldiered on. The damage football had done to Kyle's psyche he seems to have concealed. His mother said, "He's very humble. He isn't the kind to strut." But in the stories from that season, he seems to swagger.

In one game, he raved at an umpire to the point that his teammates and coach rushed forth to calm him down. In another, after throwing the final pitch, Kyle shouted to the opposing team, "Number one, my ass!" He was an aggressive designated hitter; from across the field one day, Hayes heard him yell: "Coach, use your damn head and let me hit!"

A precedent was set when Kyle stood on the mound, ignoring his coach's pitching signals. "I knew how to call my own pitches," Kyle said later. "I had been pitching since I was eight years old." He had given up five runs in the first inning before Hayes strolled out for a chat. "Kyle threw a temper tantrum," the coach recalled in his deposition, "and began accusing me of trying to put him down."

Which Coach Hayes did, of course. Kyle sat out the rest of that game, and as punishment, the next one, too. For one infraction or another, he sat the bench during four games.

The family finally had to accept that all interest in Kyle as a football prospect had dried up. Maybe this was because Kyle had ceased to be a football player, but it was easier to believe that Hooks had slandered Kyle to the recruiters.

"They must have said something about me," said Kyle, "to all of a sudden make everyone quit talking to me."

From baseball scouts, though, Kyle was still receiving "Dear Prospect" form letters from such places as Lamar University in Beaumont, Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, Baylor and Texas Christian. The Rutherfords were sure Hooks was trying to kill these hopes, too, when they received news that Kyle had been named to the all-district team only as a designated hitter.  

"I guarantee you," Mr. Rutherford explained, "that Coach Hooks said, 'You don't let Kyle be captain and don't nominate him as pitcher for all-district.' And Hayes, he got around it by nominating Kyle for designated hitter."

The injustice of it all finally brought Mr. Rutherford to express himself again. Mrs. Rutherford, because of her work with the football programs, had been asked to help organize a farewell book for the graduating seniors. There would be ads from parents wishing their children the best -- Kyle's would be one of the few full-page ads -- and there would be "wills," in which seniors would take parting shots at those they were leaving behind.

The wills were supposed to be exclusively from seniors, but Mr. Rutherford later confessed to authoring two anonymous bequests. One, "to all football parents," offered the number of a good real estate agent: "Call 444-MOVE!!!" Another left Coach Hooks "a new set of earplugs so you can't hear the other coaches in the district laughing at you."

Mr. Rutherford also had a suggestion for Kyle's will. As Mrs. Rutherford recalled, Kyle said, "But Coach Hooks will get mad, won't he?"

"Well, what can he do to you?" asked Mr. Rutherford. "You're out of school. You'll never see him again."

"Well, okay," Kyle said, and he sat down to write the will that would change his life. To one comrade, he left "some of my blazing speed"; to another, "some of my smarts I don't use"; and to a third, a can of Skoal. And just as his daddy told him, Kyle wrote, "To Coach Hooks, I leave a $40,000 debt. I figure you cost me that much with your 37 season."

The will was electric. It was, without dispute, pure and genuine insubordination. A certain Coach Raffield seems to have taken delight in handing it to Hooks and to Hayes, gauging their reactions and spreading the word.

Coach Hooks abandoned a recruiter he was speaking with and went directly to complain to the principal. A student should never be allowed to speak of a teacher in this way, he believed. What most annoyed Hooks was that Kyle had called it his 3-7 season, when actually the coach was not responsible.

"You know," Hooks said in his deposition, "I didn't get any shin splints from playing. I didn't play."

It must have been interesting to watch Coach Hayes read the will. "I felt," he said later, "like my heart had been ripped out."

Meanwhile, Kyle was preparing for the regional quarterfinal game. According to the custom Mrs. Rutherford had maintained since he was a little boy, she kissed him and said: "Hit me a grounder and throw strikes!"

Alas, it was not to be.
Perhaps, on that last day of school, there truly was a small conspiracy to bench Kyle Rutherford. In the court record, Hayes and Hooks swore they never saw each other that day; other coaches, in turn, swore they did. It is just as possible, though, that Hayes, as he said, acted alone. For four years, he had tried to teach Kyle to be a good sport. Now here was Kyle's last act -- the dissing of the football coach and athletic director.

Coach Hayes and Kyle went for a long walk down the left-field line. Hayes confirmed that Kyle would again be riding the pine. As the coach recalled in his deposition, he told Kyle he had always stood up for him, "at times when a lot of guys didn't think real high of you ... (but) I cannot back you when you make comments like this."

Kyle pleaded. He fumed. It was established in depositions that he uttered "the F word." When he saw that all was lost, he told Coach Hayes, "You will be hearing from my parents."

"I'm sure I will," said the coach.

It did not help that Kyle graduated the next day with a nearly perfect grade-point average, or that he'd been nominated Outstanding Senior. High school had been a disaster for him, his parents believed. "Everything that could go wrong, did," said Mrs. Rutherford.

The Rutherfords pleaded for their son for four months within the school system. They told their sad story three times -- to the principal, a disciplinary committee and the school board -- "substantiated" by many documents and letters. These included Kyle's report cards back to elementary school ("This young man is not a troublemaker!"); newspaper stories of his exploits; a letter from his grandmother to Coach Hooks ("I hope no one ever does to your grandsons what you did to mine"); a letter from a receiver complaining he wasn't thrown the ball enough to receive a scholarship offer; and a letter from this receiver's father, who believed his son's time with Coach Hooks was "the biggest misuse of talent ever experienced."  

The baseball game could not be replayed, but the Rutherfords were determined, as they later wrote, "to prevent this catastrophe from befalling another unsuspecting student." Mr. Rutherford spoke to the officials with authority; Mrs. Rutherford spoke with emotion.

Though Cy Falls High School was only four years old, 200 students had left just to escape Coach Hooks, Mr. Rutherford told the disciplinary committee. He didn't explain how he knew this, but he did say there was no way to confirm it, since the kids were probably all too scared to talk.

The only solution, as he saw it, was the "termination" of Coach Hooks. Toward that end, Mr. Rutherford related every evil he had heard about the coach: installation of an underground power line without district permission, personal use of an inflatable cast bought for the team by the booster club and, most significantly, using a walkie-talkie to eavesdrop on an opposing coach during a game.

The Rutherfords went on and on. The principal, the disciplinary board and the school board -- each level of command was attentive and polite. The transcripts and records show no evidence of wisecracking or merrymaking, or of agreement. The coaches were always quickly exonerated. The most supportive reply the Rutherfords received came from Assistant Superintendent Charles Goodson:

"Thank you for the interest demonstrated in the education of your son."
Mrs. Rutherford was boggled. Did these people think they were liars, that they were just making it up? Just how large was this conspiracy?

"My goodness," she said, "this is surreal. I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone."

And so the matter of Kyle Rutherford was finally lifted away from the ballfields, out of the schools and dropped into the soft, capable palms of lawyers. As he filled out the check for $6,000, Mr. Rutherford said farewell to the annual Florida vacation, and hello to a believer.

Larry Watts has spent many years suing school districts, often on constitutional grounds. In a building set among the cheap shops along the far reaches of Harwin, his office is decorated with portraits of old Texas heroes and with a plaque bearing the words of George Bernard Shaw:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."

Certainly, there are reasonable men who would not have taken the Rutherford case, which would have left the Rutherfords nothing to do, except to go on looking for less reasonable men, or maybe to get on with their lives. But after listening to the conspiracy theory, Watts was convinced, and he even added a twist of his own. The case he saw was fraught with First Amendment violations -- infractions of the worst, most outrageous kind. Kyle's role models, the people he was supposed to respect, were punishing him for simply exercising his American right to speak his mind. And through Kyle, these people were also punishing his parents for speaking theirs. The case was absolutely surreal.

"It seems to me what we have here is the world turned upside down," said the lawyer. Naming as defendants every school functionary who hadn't seen the merit of the Rutherford case, Watts filed the lawsuit. As a federal civil rights lawsuit, it would allow him to sue the other side for additional attorney fees.

And Lisa Brown was outraged, too, when word of this lawsuit traveled up to the 24th floor of the Pennzoil Tower, into the firm of Bracewell & Patterson. Brown is one of the firm's 18 lawyers dedicated to the defense of school districts. She says there are beautiful schools in this world, and there are struggling ones, but all of them are simply trying to educate people. "Then somebody comes in and tries to sue them," says Brown, and for about $150 an hour, she shows up to defend against greed.

The two lawyers were righteous as only those who are paid to be righteous can be. Watts saw The Event (or Non-Event) of May 17, 1996, as recrimination against free speech. Brown saw it as discipline. They were old foes, and quickly, they locked into their death grips.

"And isn't it true," Brown inquired of Kyle in depositions, "that during the course of many baseball games your senior season, that you used the word 'fuck'?"  

"Excuse me just a moment," Watts interrupted. The use of vulgarities "certainly is out of character with the high regard I have for you, Ms. Brown." And could she please refer to it as "the F word"?

This was easily done, but later, Watts found it more difficult to interrupt. "Are you ignoring me?" he asked. And Brown replied, "I was." Their courtly manner eventually crumbled. "Your sarcasm is not appreciated," said Watts. "Don't yell at me!" said Watts. "I have never had reason to doubt your word. I now do," said Watts. "I apologize," said Watts, finally. "I have always had the highest regard for you."

There were other dramatic moments, such as when Watts complained of Coach Hooks's "winking at me and grinning at me, the whole bit." Hooks and Hayes attended some of the depositions, and in time were themselves deposed. Watts asked, "Do you have an idea what the First Amendment is all about?"

"Not right off hand, no sir," Coach Hooks replied.
Mrs. Rutherford wept through much of her deposition, but Mr. Rutherford told her, "This is what we paid our money for." He was eager for the confrontation, and under fire, proudly defended his conspiracy theory. And the papers piled up with the billable hours, and slowly the evidence was collected.

In constructing her argument, Brown managed to dig up a pertinent case originally filed by Larry Watts. In Gary Piwonka v. Tidehaven Independent School District, Watts had argued that a student had a constitutional right to a fair cheerleading tryout. U.S. District Judge Sam Kent disagreed. "A remarkably overblown litigation exercise," he called it.

The Galveston judge dismissed the cheerleading claim "as asinine on its face." He threw out all claims of civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He wrote, "This court will not waste its valuable time and limited resources on exploring the constitutional implications of whether or not someone gets to be a cheerleader.... The court is not in the business of micro-managing middle schools."

"I never realized one physical activity could mean so much to my life," wrote Kyle in a college essay, "(until) it was taken away from me. Ever since the time I quit football, the same questions race through my mind every day. I wonder what might have been if I had kept playing. I wonder if anything would actually be any different... Most of all, I wonder if I would be happier."

It was Kyle's mother who asked him to speak with a reporter. From his room at Texas Christian, he mumbled reluctantly into the telephone. He said he tries not to remember high school. Recalling some of it anyway, he clamped his hand over the receiver and snarled to his roommate, "I hate talking about this shit!"

He's majoring in business and is having to get used to playing sports only in intramurals. In his freshman year, Kyle walked onto the TCU baseball team, but last August, as word of his federal lawsuit was still spreading, he was cut.

His mother says that he called, crying hysterically. "'What if I'm a failure in the business world, too?' he said. And I said, 'Kyle, don't let this carry over into your future. You're Kyle the person, not Kyle the athlete.'"

Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford ache for their son. Though Kyle was cut with four other pitchers, his parents are sure TCU is part of the conspiracy. "No way we can prove it," Mr. Rutherford said, "but that was all a setup deal."

They no longer see themselves simply as parents defending their child, but as leaders of a movement. Though they've received angry anonymous mail and though some football parents won't talk to them anymore, they also get letters and calls from parents across the country with coaching problems of their own. "You're representing a lot of people out there," one caller told them.

Shortly before he was cut from the college team, Kyle asked his mother and father if they would please drop his federal lawsuit. Mrs. Rutherford said, "Kyle! We can't just drop it! We opened this can of worms!"

It was their lawyer who told the Rutherfords they had to sue for a dollar amount. Mrs. Rutherford says she doesn't want the school system's "stinking money," but only for Hooks to be removed. If the case gets to trial, Mr. Rutherford believes, "we've got them! There's not a jury in the world that won't see their lies." If, on the other hand, Judge Rainey dismisses the case, then Mr. Rutherford will lose his faith in the justice system.

But they have never considered quitting. The lawsuit is their obligation as parents.  

"You know, we love our kids," says Mr. Rutherford. "This whole thing, it isn't fun, but Kyle's done, you know. They ruined his whole life.

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