High school coaches’ firing over pizza incident was sparked by jealous colleague, suit says

A defamation suit by six Ohio high school football coaches who were fired for allegedly forcing a player to eat pizza says the controversy was ignited by a jealous assistant coach who wanted the top job.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Ohio’s Stark County concerns the fallout from a highly publicized May 24, 2021, incident in which a 17-year-old player at Canton McKinley High School was disciplined for missing a voluntary workout.

In a punishment meant to “convey a much-needed lesson about teamwork, responsibility and accountability,” the boy was seated in the middle of a gym and told to eat while his teammates circled him carrying 45-pound weights, the complaint says.

The player, identified in the suit as K.W., told the coaches that eating the pepperoni pizza would violate his religion’s ban on eating pork. When he was offered chicken nuggets instead, he said he would pick off the pepperoni and eat the pizza.

After the 20-minute disciplinary event, K.W. apologized to his coaches and acknowledged that he “needed” the punishment, the suit says. But one of the assistant coaches, Josh Grimsley, reportedly called the boy’s father and claimed the other coaches had “forced” the boy to eat pepperoni “against his will.”

The suit describes Grimsley as “disgruntled” and says he had interviewed in 2019 for the head coaching position that ended up going to Marcus Wattley. Grimsley is named as a defendant, along with the boy’s father, the father’s lawyer and six Canton school officials.

The father, Kenny Walker, complained about his son’s punishment. Wattley and five assistants, including Grimsley, were fired from their coaching positions. Three of them also were fired from other jobs at the school.

The incident made national news, including a story in the New York Times.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for the damage done to the coaches’ reputations, their lost wages, their diminished earning capacity and for the mental distress, pain and anguish they have suffered.

Except for Kenny Walker’s attorney, Edward Gilbert, defendants contacted by the Canton Repository either could not be reached or declined to comment about the lawsuit.

Gilbert told the newspaper the defamation suit was a “publicity stunt” and that he looked forward to defending himself and Walker.

K.W. follows the Hebrew Israelite faith, which is not affiliated with mainstream Judaism but follows some tenets of Judaism as well as Christianity. In accordance with religious dietary restrictions, the boy does not eat pork. The defamation lawsuit says his coaches were not aware of that until the day he was offered pizza.