By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Gavin and Ryan Mallen are too young to understand a lot of things that happen in the adult world. A world of bylaws and extenuating circumstances, of unanimous votes and appeals. They are seventh and eighth-graders, respectively, and all they want to do is play football with their friends in Egg Harbor Township. But a strange confluence of happenings this summer has prevented the boys from suiting up for the Egg Harbor Township Youth Organization Eagles.
The township used to have two different teams at the middle school age group, with one playing in the Cape-Atlantic Junior Football League and the other playing in the Atlantic County Junior Football League. Each league has its own set of rules and criteria for determining eligibility. The Mallen boys grew up playing youth sports for Egg Harbor Township, but after their father, Albie, took his own life in June of 2017, they no longer had EHT residency, as their mother, Merri, who was divorced from Albie at the time, lived in Northfield.
In the years since Albie’s death, the boys had been able to receive a waiver from Northfield to play for EHT, as both teams competed in the Atlantic County league. This summer, however, with dwindling numbers, the EHT Youth Organization decided to combine two teams into one and enter that team in the Cape-Atlantic junior league, which has different rules from Atlantic County. The Cape league didn’t recognize the waiver from Northfield as being legitimate under their bylaws, hence ruling that the Mallen boys were ineligible to play for EHT.
What has followed has been a crusade by the boys’ mother, bolstered by a groundswell of support on social media, to try to get the Cape league and the EHTYO to reconsider their decision to exclude the Mallen boys and let them play the remainder of their youth football careers where they started, in Egg Harbor Township. For Ryan, that’s just one more season, while Gavin has two more years of eligibility left.
“They live in Northfield, they don’t live in the Egg Harbor Township sending district. They were never in our league before. They played in the other league, the Atlantic County League. From what I understand, they played in the Atlantic League and never played in our Cape League, they merged into one team this year, and, listen, I live in Egg Harbor Township and nobody knew until two weeks before the season about these boys who were technically illegal players. Nothing was ever brought to our attention until Aug. 24 that they lived in Northfield,” said Chris Souder, president of the Cape-Atlantic Junior Football League. “Our bylaws state that EHTYO can draw from Egg Harbor Township school sending districts. They asked if the boys could play, and the way our bylaws are it has to be a unanimous decision, so every organization (in the league) would have to say yes for that to happen, and it didn’t go that way. Every team in the league has a representative that attends our meetings, and it had to be unanimous. Ms. Mallen asked if she could come to our next meeting, we allowed her to, and she addressed the board. After some discussion, the executive board voted unanimously the same way because we didn’t want to overrule what our board of directors had voted. They appealed it, and the appeals committee upheld the executive committee’s ruling.”
Ryan and Gavin don’t know what the rules for each league are, they just want to play football and they are confused as to why they can’t this year when nothing in their world has changed.
“I don’t understand why this had to happen and why they said no, and why any of this happened in the first place,” Ryan said.
“I’m mad and confused. This would have been my first year with new coaches and I wanted to get to know them. I didn’t really get to learn anything at the quarterback position this year because they won’t let me play,” Gavin added. “I don’t really know everything about the situation, I just keep my head up and keep playing football. I felt like I was going to be able to play because of how much my mom did to help us.”
Merri has been doing everything she can to try to get the board of directors for both the Cape league and the EHTYO to understand that the only reason her sons don’t have EHT residency anymore is because of Albie’s death. He coached them their entire careers in EHT before he passed away in 2017.
“EHT is unique in that it had one team that played in the Cape league and one in the Atlantic league. They were getting pressure from recreation department in EHT to merge into one team because we had such low numbers. When we signed up, we signed up for Atlantic, and the merger happened after registration and the EHTYO voted to go to one team and have that team play in the Cape league. We practiced for a few weeks before the Cape league said we didn’t have the right to play for EHT anymore. Normally, living in Northfield, we get a waiver that allows us to play legally in Egg Harbor Township,” Merri Mallen said. “The Cape league, however, said the waiver didn’t hold up because Northfield doesn’t have a team in the Cape league and we are outside the boundary lines (to play for EHT) because we live in Northfield. The first vote was an attempt to change the boundary bylaw to expand them to include Northfield. We didn’t ask them to change a bylaw. That vote was done via email and had to be unanimous and the third vote was a no, so they shut it down.”
Undeterred, Merri has continued to fight to give her boys the opportunity to continue their youth football careers on the teams and with the players they consider family. Technically, the Mallen boys could join the Northfield team in the Atlantic County league, and that still may be an option, but Merri said she thought she needed to show her boys that it’s ok to fight for something you believe in if you think it’s important enough.
“The second time we approached them, I had written a letter, we got letters of support, the kids wrote letters. I asked to appear at their league meeting and speak on behalf of the boys. We had about 15 people join us but they wouldn’t let in anybody but me, not even my kids. The president stood at the doorway and said the kids weren’t allowed to come in, when here in their bylaws it says that the hearing should include all parties involved. I stated that to him, he looked through his book to see if he could find a bylaw that said the boys couldn’t come in to the meeting, he couldn’t find one, and he basically said either I come in by myself or I don’t come in at all,” she said. “The next vote, which was on extenuating circumstances, had to be a majority by the executive board, which has five members. I got a call later that night from the president who told me it was a unanimous ‘no.’ I filed an appeal, and since then they have stopped speaking to me. They will not return any of my emails, they won’t return phone calls.
“We have never played sports anywhere else besides Egg Harbor Township,” Merri added. “Their dad was their coach and he literally coached a game the day before he died. He coached football and baseball, and even after his death we stayed with EHT, this is our family. They wrapped these boys up in hugs and never let them go. I really don’t understand. These are truly extenuating circumstances. When I spoke to the board I mentioned that their bylaws are written to have the best interests of the kids in mind.”
Souder, for his part, said he felt like the board of directors for the Cape league did the diplomatic, democratic thing in allowing the situation to be voted on, and put the onus on the EHTYO for not knowing that the Mallen boys’ eligibility would be called into question based on the Cape league’s bylaws.
“I understand the circumstances of everything, I truly do. It boils down to they don’t live in the (EHT) jurisdiction. How could no one from EHTYO, when they merged the teams in July, how could two months go by before anybody said anything about these kids? They have teams in our league so they know our rules,” Souder said. “There are five of us on the executive board and only one of us has a son who plays football. My son doesn’t play football and I live in EHT and have been doing this for 15 years. And our board of directors, probably half of them don’t have kids who play football anymore. We have our rules and we follow what is there. We’ve never stopped the boys from playing, they can play for Northfield, where they live. We don’t do any waivers in our league and our bylaws clearly define who can play for what team. We put it up for a vote, everyone knew all the circumstances, and they considered that.”
Ryan and Gavin both said that even if they have to sit out this entire football season, their love for the game hasn’t been tarnished and they plan to continue playing football into their high school days, just like their dad, who was an all-state performer during his days at Holy Spirit High after establishing himself as one of the best players in the EHT youth league.
“I definitely want to keep playing football as I get older because I’ve been playing my whole life, and I still love football,” Ryan said. “My mom did all she could, she worked every day and made about a thousand phone calls to try to help us play our last year.”
“I plan to do a little bit more. After reading the bylaws a thousand times, my kids aren’t the only kids affected by the death of a parent, and there is nothing in the bylaws that states that in the event of the death of parent, a child should be allowed to continue their youth athletic career through eighth grade with that same town,” Merri said. “In a situation like ours, where we couldn’t move back to EHT — sports are for the kids and there should be things in the bylaws to protect kids from things like this happening. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to change something like that, probably by contacting congressmen. Other than that, we always use the semicolon, which is for suicide awareness; our story isn’t over, we’re going to keep going and these boys are going to keep making a name for themselves wherever they go. When my sons ask me hard questions, I always say, ‘we’ll figure it out together, and we’ll find a way.’”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays