An East Ridge High School football player, his parents and their lawyer took the unusual step of going to court Wednesday to do what fans do practically any time a referee throws a penalty flag:
Argue the call.
But the case of Marco Cavallaro goes beyond what took place on the field. Cavallaro, a defensive lineman at East Ridge, was ejected from his team’s regular-season finale Oct. 17 against Centennial after drawing a penalty for targeting, a hit aimed above the shoulders.
Hoping to get the captain back on the field as soon as Friday, Minneapolis attorney James T. Smith and the Cavallaro family appeared Wednesday morning in Hennepin County District Court to ask Judge Ronald L. Abrams for an injunction to allow for an appeal and to restore Cavallaro’s eligibility.
Smith argued that Cavallaro was denied due process by the league despite video evidence showing that the hit, according to the Cavallaros, was not flagrant.
Attorney Kevin Beck appeared for the High School League, which contends that referees’ decisions are final and to subvert that in court would undermine sports.
Smith said the judge indicated he would try to issue a decision by Friday, when East Ridge plays Eastview in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
Though the legal action brought emotional and financial burden, Cavallaro said, “It was either that or probably not play another snap in high school. I want to finish what I started 10 years ago with my friends on the team.”
On the play, Cavallaro rushed past the Cougars’ quarterback, who seconds later threw an interception. As the quarterback began to pursue the player who intercepted the pass, Cavallaro leveled him with a blindside hit. An official threw a penalty flag near the quarterback lying on the turf. All ejections carry an additional one-game suspension.
But because he had drawn a previous suspension this season, for what the player concedes was a “dumb’’ retaliatory kick, Cavallaro must sit out four games, according to Minnesota State High School League rules. With the football season in the playoffs, however, each game could be a team’s last.
Cavallaro missed the Raptors’ first-round playoff victory Friday. East Ridge, located in Woodbury, plays host for its next game against Apple Valley-based Eastview on Friday.
The Raptors would have to win three more games and reach the Prep Bowl for Cavallaro to have a chance to play again if the four-game suspension is upheld.
Citing a video clip of the hit, Chris and Amanda Cavallaro maintain that their son, who wants to play college football, led with his shoulder, not his helmet, and hit the quarterback’s chest.
In their view, targeting does not apply and the ejection and suspension were not warranted.
Targeting was defined by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2014 as “an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulder with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders. The penalty for targeting is 15 yards. The offending player may be disqualified if the foul is deemed to be flagrant.”
On Oct. 22, the Cavallaros wrote to Erich Martens, the High School League executive director, asking for a video review of the play and the ability to appeal the targeting call and suspension.
Martens denied their request, saying in a statement that, “Our high school games are officiated according to the rules of the National Federation of High Schools with a focus on the safety of all competitors. The Minnesota State High School League’s bylaw language clearly states, ‘The decisions of contest officials are final’ and therefore there is no option for appeal.”
Marco Cavallaro said the league’s position “basically destroyed my senior year. I don’t want it to happen again.”
Cavallaro, who has played football since third grade, said he can still practice with the team and be on the sideline during games. But as one of seven captains, he can’t participate in the pregame coin toss.
“My teammates support me,’’ he said. “They respect the path I’m going down.’’
The family started a GoFundMe page seeking $5,000 to help with legal fees to fight for “Justice for Marco and HS football.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the GoFundMe page, which includes a video link to the play that got Cavallaro suspended, reported pledges of $825 toward the family’s goal.
“The broader picture is the injustice,” Chris Cavallaro said. “If this was something he deserved, so be it. But this is not what he deserved.”