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Police investigate ball field violence

Father hurt after spat with coach

By Kay Lazar and Jenara Gardner
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2009

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WILMINGTON - A spat at a Pop Warner football practice has left a father with head injuries, the coach suspended, a community shaken, and the police investigating.

Michael VonKahle, 48, suffered a shattered eye socket, a broken nose, and a concussion in the fight, which took place in a secluded area during the Friday night practice behind Wilmington Town Hall, according to interviews conducted by police. No charges have been filed.

As VonKahle recovered at home yesterday, youngsters returned to the field amid a driving rain for an afternoon of scheduled games, where many parents were reluctant to talk about the altercation.

But Deb Smith, Pop Warner League president, said she removed the coach, pending the investigation.

“Violence should not be a part of youth sports at all,’’ Smith said. “We are here to set an example.’’

While much about the event remains murky, all sides agree that it started when VonKahle brought his 12-year-old son, Tyler, to practice 10 minutes late.

The coach, William Reynolds, ordered the youngster to run laps for his tardiness, but the boy’s father balked, saying his son shouldn’t be punished for his father’s mistake, according to excerpts from the police report read by Sergeant Chris Ahern of the Wilmington police.

As the exchange escalated, VonKahle apparently yelled disparaging remarks to the coach about his weight, the report said.

The two men finally agreed to resolve the dispute out of earshot of the youngsters, and headed toward a more secluded area of the ball field.

What happened next is a matter of some dispute, according to the police report, with each man accusing the other of throwing the first punch. The report says VonKahle showed up at the police station shortly after the fight with facial injuries severe enough that officers called for an ambulance. It does not indicate whether Reynolds suffered any injuries.

“Detectives are contacting Pop Warner to get information in regards to the incident and whether there were any witnesses that observed the incident and asking them to come forward,’’ said Ahern, who declined to release the report in its entirety because the case was still under investigation.

Ahern said police had not pursued charges because the incident was not witnessed by an officer. “A fistfight between two people is not an arrestable offense, unless it’s in front of a police officer,’’ Ahern said.

Both men, he said, are free to press criminal charges at Woburn District Court.

VonKahle’s family said they intend to file charges on his behalf today.

A reporter who went to Reynolds’s house was told that his family had no comment.

Another Pop Warner coach, who did not want to be named because he did not witness the incident, said Reynolds told him he was defending himself from an overzealous parent. He said that, according to Reynolds, the parent called him an insulting name in front of his players.

“Too many parents live through their children,’’ said the coach. “It’s a real headache. A lot of parents have too much passion.’’

VonKahle’s wife, Robin, gave a different version of what happened, based on what her husband told her.

She said the coach swung at her husband once they reached the secluded area and knocked him to the ground, where he lay unconscious. She said that when he came to, he was bleeding from his mouth and the coach was gone.

“I would expect a verbal spat, not an assault,’’ she said.

Not wanting to have the youngsters see him like that, Michael VonKahle called a friend to pick up their son, then drove himself to the police station, his wife said.

From there, she said, he was taken by ambulance to Winchester Hospital, where doctors said the extent of his injuries - three fractures around his left eye socket, two fractures on his nose, a torn rotator cuff muscle, and a concussion - required attention by specialists. He was taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was treated and released on Saturday, she said.

“The doctors are concerned about his eyesight,’’ Robin VonKahle said. More medical tests are expected today.

The flare-up in Wilmington over a seemingly mundane sporting event is not unique. Youth sports has been tarnished by parental rage across a wide swath of arenas, including one 2001 case in Reading that turned deadly.

Thomas Junta, a 270-pound truck driver from Reading, beat to death 40-year-old Michael Costin of Lynnfield after their sons’ hockey practice. The brawl grew out of a quarrel at Burbank Ice Arena in Reading. Junta and Costin began arguing over rough play at the hockey scrimmage in which their sons were participating. Junta was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Staff writer Tracy Jan contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.