Julian Connerton loves football, but he loves his mother more.
Those relationships were tested Saturday night at the first game of the season when he put on a pair of pink gloves as a way to show support for his mother’s fight against breast cancer.
But, just as the 12-year-old Egg Harbor City Crusaders player was suiting up, his coach told him he could not play in the game against the Ocean City Junior Raiders if he wore the pink gloves.
That prompted Julian to quit the team, and the incident has since generated hundreds of comments on multiple Facebook pages, many of them supporting Julian’s decision and questioning his coach’s refusal to allow it.
Sonia Cruz, Julian's aunt, told The Press on Tuesday morning that the Crusaders Youth Athletic League Association will hold a meeting to discuss the matter this evening.
"The family is optimistic that the coach will apologize and that Julian will rejoin the team," she said. She also inidcated the family has spoken with the coach and that Julian was ivited to participate in team pictures on Wednesday.
On the EHC Crusaders Facebook page, a message posted around 11 a.m. Tuesday said the organization “look(s) forward to Julian returning to our field and helping to make this our best season yet!”
A call to the Crusaders Youth Athletic League Association was not immediately returned.
Louis Barrios, a member of the Crusaders Youth Athletic League Association’s board of directors, said Julian’s coach, Paul Burgan, did not realize why Julian was wearing pink gloves.
In October, players are permitted to wear pink gloves specifically for breast cancer awareness, he said. On Saturday, they were expected to wear black gloves.
“It was strictly a uniform situation,” he said. “No one knew that there was a personal reason why the kid wanted to wear the gloves … The game was ready to begin in minutes, and it was a communication issue. There was a storm. It was chaotic.”
Burgan declined to comment about the situation to The Press of Atlantic City. Other board members spoke to The Press but would not provide their names.
While Julian — who is a quiet boy — said he did not ask the coach that day if he could wear the gloves, Julian’s mother, Mayra Cruz-Connerton, said Burgan should have understood. Everyone was informed of her diagnosis.
“(Julian’s) coach did know why he was wearing those gloves and why he wanted to wear them,” Cruz-Connerton said.
Cruz-Connerton said the board of directors has spoken with the family and was supposed to apologize during a meeting Sunday night, but that meeting was abruptly canceled.
“I think they needed time to regroup and get the facts together. They did go out and try to get the facts and we do appreciate that,” Cruz-Connerton said. “They’ve reached out to us. They told us they want Julian to come back, they really want him to come back to play. We told them that’s Julian’s decision.”
The team is part of the Atlantic County Junior Football League, which has a list of guidelines for equipment. According to the 2011-2012 bylaws, gloves are not part of the required equipment.
Mason Wright, athletic director for the Egg Harbor City Crusaders, said gloves are part of the team’s uniform and have to meet certain appearance standards, but he was unsure whether color was part of the standards. “To be honest, that much detail has never come up before,” Wright said.
Some National Football League players wear pink uniform components every October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and former New York Jets player Derrick Mason donned pink cleats in the 2011 season to honor his mother, who died from breast cancer.
Julian, who has played with the Crusaders as a center and as a guard for four years, was set to play his first year on the varsity team. Before practice even started, he pledged in June to wear the gloves shortly after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Cruz-Connerton said her son’s coaches were told of the illness before Julian and his brother Gabriel, 10, were, so that they would know they may need to provide emotional support on certain days, particularly as she had a double mastectomy operation within weeks of the diagnosis.
But when Julian put on the $40 bubble gum-pink gloves just before the game in Ocean City, Burgan told him to remove them or he would not be able to play, he said.
“I took them off and I looked at my friend and he said ‘that’s messed up,’” Julian said Monday afternoon at his home on Liverpool Avenue.
“So (my friend) said just to put them back on and when I put them back on, (my coach) told me to take them off again. So I said I won’t play. So I watched my team while I’m sitting on the sidelines.”
Julian said Burgan did not say anything else to him. “He just turned around and walked away.”
“I asked him if coach said why and he said no,” said Cruz-Connerton, a teacher for Atlantic City Public Schools. “I said, ‘Well, Julian, just go back and support your team and don’t worry about it.,”
As the first half of the game progressed, Julian grew more and more upset, pacing along the sidelines. He approached his mom once again, with tears in his eyes.
“He was like, ‘You know, Mom, I’m really upset, you know, he’s not supporting me.’ I was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ and he said ‘I want to leave. I don’t want to play for someone if he’s not going to support me.,”
Julian and his family left the game and Sonia Cruz, Julian's aunt, went over to the coach at halftime to return Julian’s uniform. Cruz said when she asked Burgan why he refused to let Julian play if he was wearing the pink gloves, “He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I gave him the uniform and he threw it on the floor.”
Later that night, Julian began receiving text messages from his friends and teammates that surprised him. His teammates were supportive of his decision and bewildered about the incident. But they also said Burgan was “bad-mouthing” Julian in front of the team.
But what was said, Julian and his family don’t know. “I told them I didn’t want to know,” he said. “The whole time, I had like butterflies in my stomach.”
Barrios said that at no point did Burgan say anything negative about Julian.
Julian, Cruz-Connerton and Cruz still are trying to come to terms with the incident. Julian, who dreams of playing college football and, ultimately, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is upset because he’s not playing the game he loves with the team he loves.
But he won’t return unless he receives a “sincere apology” and feels comfortable returning, Cruz-Connerton said. “Personally, my husband and I would like to see (Burgan) suspended for the season.”
As for Julian’s decision, Cruz-Connerton and Cruz said the family supports him. “He didn’t quit the game, he didn’t quit his team. He just stood up for what he believes in. We taught him that you respect adults, but you deserve to be respected as well,” Cruz-Connerton said.
Barrios said that Burgan is well-liked and that he will continue to coach. He also said that Julian would be welcome to return to the team. The league plans to apologize to the family, he said.
“We’ve had individuals reach out to the family personally,” Barrios said. “I think there’s some meetings scheduled for it to be addressed directly. We feel bad for the incident but we feel like it was taken out of context.”
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Staff Writer Joel Landau also contributed to this report.