An Arizona high school football player was ejected from a game last week and threatened with being banned from participating in a playoff game because, he said, he uttered a prayer on the field.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association overturned 17-year-old Pedro Banda's suspension on Tuesday.
The top running back was facing a suspension for Dysart High School’s first playoff game in 21 years for pointing to the sky after he plunged into the end zone for a touchdown.
Banda told reporters that he was thanking God for the good fortune on the field, but a referee marked it a penalty by throwing a flag, and took Banda out of the game.
“I put my hand up to my face mask and I pointed to the sky and I looked up for about four seconds," Banda said in an interview with ABC News Phoenix Affiliate KNXV.
That flag was the second for Banda for what was ruled unsportsmanlike penalty in the game.
Because he received two (the first reportedly was for arguing with a player from the opposing team), he was banned from the next game.
But on Tuesday, the Arizona Interscholastic Association's Appeals Committee overruled the second penalty, clearing the way for Banda, a senior, to play in the first playoff game this Saturday.
"I am glad that my intentions were heard today," said Banda in a statement released by the high school. "My family and I appreciate the support of Dysart High School, the team, my family, and friends. I am also appreciative of the AIA hearing my appeal and overturning the earlier decision. My focus is on joining my team for our first playoff appearance in 21 years."
Dysart won the deciding game with a 35-0 victory.
Dysart gave its support to Banda, filing an appeal against the second penalty.
The AIA reviewed video of the game and spoke with Banda on Tuesday before making its decision on the appeal, according to The Arizona Republic.
The AIA’s Gary Whelchel was quoted in the Arizona Republic as saying: "The second penalty call was overruled, which negated the ejection."
It was not an easy decision, Whelchel said. The AIA committee analyzed videos of other games Banda had played in to see if he regularly pointed to the sky after touchdowns, but did not see evidence that he did.
"We even looked at his first-quarter touchdown and we didn't see him raise his finger," Whelchel said. "That was something we struggled with as a committee."
But the committee, Whelchel said, felt the fourth-quarter TD, in which he pointed up, "was not excessive and not prolonged."
“It's a thing he and his brother do,” said Banda’s mother, Angela Franco, to KPHO in Arizona. “They always do it to thank God for everything they've been through. If it is a rule, I would have liked to have been informed of it.”
"At the end of the day, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We met with him. He's a gracious young man," Whelchel told the Republic.
Dysart High coach J.R. Alcantar said that his star player does, in fact, often thanks God after touchdowns, even though it’s not always obvious on video.
People can look back at the clips, and say they don’t see it all the time,” he said to the Republic. “But it’s not always shown on video. I have many pictures of him doing it. That’s him. He believes in his faith and feels strong about it.”
“They all agreed there was no excessive celebration,” Alcantar said. “They were looking at one play and one play only. I’m glad they came through and realized it was a mistake. The AIA worked really well with us.”
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