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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, January 29, 2005

Punahou halts 'Brawl' wrestling

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Punahou School has suspended its head wrestling coach and fired an assistant who gave a student-athlete a bloody nose and cut lip after wrestling him at practice on Jan 18.

A school spokeswoman said the practice session was called "Brawl Day," when coaches go up against students to help athletes "handle themselves safely during a tough wrestling match."

The school said it will no longer conduct "Brawl Day" training exercises.

Head wrestling coach Matt Oney was given a two-week suspension but will continue to serve as a Punahou math teacher.

The school did not name the assistant coach involved. But attorney David Gierlach, who said he is representing the family of the student, identified the assistant coach as Kena Heffernan.

Heffernan was removed from his wrestling coaching duties but continues to teach at Punahou's middle school.

According to Gierlach, "Brawl Day" pitted coaches and student wrestlers in "no-holds-barred" competitions. He said Heffernan repeatedly struck the student's face with his forearm and kneed him in the mouth during their one-on-one session while other coaches watched.

Efforts to reach Oney and Heffernan yesterday were not successful.

But Punahou wrestling parents at last night's Interscholastic League of Honolulu dual meet said their children reported nothing unusually brutal about the "Brawl Day" practice and voiced support for the coaching staff.

"It's tough to make an opinion on that issue because the only ones who were there that day were the kids and the coaches," said Dana Peiterson, whose son is on the wrestling team. "My son just said they had a really hard, challenging practice, but he felt positive about the experience. I guess everybody took something different from it. But he said it challenged him."

Janet Primiano, one of the "Team Moms" for the girls program, said her daughter also participated in the "Brawl Day" practice and reported nothing unusual about it.

"She said the coaches were just preparing them for matches, like they always do," Primiano said. "That was a practice to toughen them up, and you need to be tough to be a wrestler, whether you're male or female. But I think it prepares them for the future, teaches them discipline and respect. I'm happy with the coaching. I'm surprised it's come down to this."

Laurel Bowers Husain, Punahou's director of development and communications, issued a statement saying school officials "deeply regret the impact that this training had on one of our students and have taken steps to ensure that he receives the care and support needed to overcome this incident."

Gierlach said during the session with Heffernan, the student was "breathing in blood and thought he was going to die."

He said the student did not suffer broken bones and did not receive immediate medical treatment, although he did receive treatment later.

"At best, this is an astounding lack of judgment on the coaches' part," Gierlach said. The family is trying to determine the extent of the student's injuries, "but the real trauma is to his emotional and mental state. (A coach) is someone you're supposed to trust and respect, not someone who's going to beat the living daylights out of you."

Husain said no punching or upward hitting was allowed during the "Brawl Day" exercise, "but other standard match rules did not apply."

She said the student was paired with the assistant coach for the first of three 10-minute matches. Afterward, the student was pitted against other assistant coaches. Regular wrestling matches have three successive two-minute periods with no rest in between.

"At the time the training exercise ended, the freshman student had a bloody nose and a cut on his lip, but did not appear to have any other injuries," Husain said. "It is common for these types of injuries to occur during wrestling practice and during matches."

Parents last night agreed.

"Wrestling's a tough sport, and you can't say you'll come home without any kind of marks," Peiterson said. "You're going to get bruised and battered."

Husain said that the student returned to school the next day and that one of his teachers noticed his bruises. He was taken to a school counselor and school nurse. School administrators then began an investigation of the incident, suspended both coaches, and contacted the student's parents.

Husain said the student has received counseling sessions with a clinical psychologist and has been attending school.

On Wednesday, Punahou completed its investigation of the incident, suspended Oney until Feb. 7 and removed Heffernan from his coaching duties.

Heffernan, a 31-year-old who recently was listed as 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, is a professional sumo wrestler who won the U.S. National Championship in September and competed in the World Championships in October. He also won a gold medal in the 2002 North American Championships.

Heffernan was a state champion wrestler and all-star football player at Punahou, then played football and graduated from Yale University in 1996.

The student involved in the incident is 15 years old, 5 feet 8 and 200 pounds.

But Gierlach said size is not really the issue.

"This is an adult against a boy," he said, "and why is he beating him up?"

Two of Oney's colleagues, Mike Low and Stan Teruya, said Oney is not the type of coach who would put a wrestler in a dangerous situation.

"Matt's always been one who's very wary of that sort of thing," said Low, a Saint Louis assistant who coached with Oney in national tournaments. "He's always been more on the technical side."

Teruya, an Iolani assistant who coached with Oney as a Punahou volunteer in the 1990s, also vouched for him.

"Knowing him personally, I can't believe he would put into practice something that would hurt a kid," Teruya said. "He would try to put in some kind of practice or technique to improve the person, both as a wrestler and a person."

Some of Punahou's current parents say that hasn't changed.

"I've known and observed Matt for six years, for hundreds of hours," said Peiterson, who noted Oney has received more than 50 letters of support from wrestlers, parents and alumni. "I have no doubt he has the best intent. The team is behind him, and so are most of the parents."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.