SAN ANTONIO -- The two Texas high school football players, suspended for blindsiding an official during a Sept. 4 game, both say they were following a direct order from their assistant coach before delivering the infamous hits.
John Jay high school senior Michael Moreno, 17, and his teammate Victor Rojas, a 15-year-old sophomore at John Jay, spoke publicly for the first time since the video of their blindside tackle of referee Robert Watts went viral.
Moreno and Watts first appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday morning with their San Antonio-based attorney, Jesse Hernandez, before also sitting down for an extensive interview with ESPN's Outside the Lines.
Moreno told OTL he was standing on the sidelines next to teammate Trenton Hobdy when their position coach, John Jay assistant Mack Breed, took the two players aside and ordered them to hit Watts. Moreno said Breed had grown angry after Watts used racist language and ejected John Jay's starting quarterback earlier in the game.
"Right before I was going to the field he pulled me and Trenton to the side and told us, 'You need to hit that m-----f-----,'" Moreno said.
"He was like, 'You need to hit him. You need to make him pay the price,'" Moreno added.
Last week Outside the Lines was provided the accounts of four John Jay players and one sideline source. Those players and the source were not named due to the ongoing school investigation but, according to those accounts, Breed did not explicitly tell Hobdy to hit Watts.
After the sideline conversation with Breed, Moreno said, he and Rojas took the field, each lining up at safety for the next defensive series. Moreno said it was Hobdy who communicated Breed's instructions to Rojas. The players say they looked at each other and asked: "Are we really going to do this?" Rojas said.
On that defensive series, Rojas can be seen hitting Watts from behind. Moreno then appears to spear Watts with his helmet as Watts lay defenseless on the ground. The players say the video of the hit, which has now been seen by millions of people, led to a flood of hostile comments on social media.
"People [are] talking about [how] we're criminals and thugs. They just know us by that video," Rojas said.
"I think we're just seen as these thugs and gangsters and we did this on our own," Moreno said.
"We would never seek violence as an answer. We were just doing what we were told. That's what everyone needs to understand," Moreno added.
Moreno and Rojas both described Breed as "a second father."
According to Northside Independent School District officials, it was Breed who, referring to Watts, said: "That guy needs to pay for cheating us." To date, nobody from the school district has said Breed explicitly told the players to hit Watts. Breed has been placed on administrative leave for his conduct during the game.
Moreno and Watts also confirmed earlier reports that Watts used racist language during the game.
According to the accounts of four John Jay High School players and one person who was on the sideline that night, Watts called two players the N-word on separate occasions, once before the infamous hit and once after. Those accounts, provided to OTL last week, were corroborated by Moreno and Rojas during Friday's interview.
Rojas alleged that Watts at one point told a Hispanic player to "speak English, this is America." Moreno contends the ref used a racial slur directed at a black player. The teenager also said at the last moment he realized the gravity of what he was about to do and softened his blow on Watts.
"I pulled up a lot," Moreno said. "It was hard for me during the whole thing to actually do what I did. And to this day I regret it. It's one of my biggest regrets and it's been affecting my life greatly."
Watts has declined to comment. His New Jersey-based attorney, Alan Goldberger, however, has said in multiple interviews that Moreno and Rojas fabricated allegations that Watts used racist remarks during the game in order to make excuses for their own actions.
When reached by phone this past weekend, Goldberger said, "I'm not going to get into a media debate with these kids. Mr. Watts has denied he made any offensive remarks." Goldberger declined further comment.
Goldberger said that Watts has no prior history of complaints about his language during games and told OTL in an interview this week that it defies logic that Watts would use racist language, knowing the potential repercussions.
John Jay is predominantly a minority school. Marble Falls High, which hosted the game, is a predominantly white school northwest of Austin.
According to the player accounts provided to Outside the Lines, it wasn't Moreno or Rojas who first alerted John Jay coaches to the alleged racist remarks by Watts but rather quarterback Moses Reynolds and Hobdy.
In the fourth quarter, according to the accounts of two different John Jay players obtained by Outside the Lines, Reynolds ran the ball up the middle on a quarterback keeper and, after getting tackled, found himself on the receiving end of some trash talk from a Marble Falls player. According to the accounts of two players, Reynolds did not respond to the opposing player but instead turned to Watts, threw him the ball and said, "See, I'm not saying nothing."
Two John Jay players said Watts, apparently angry with the way Reynolds had thrown the ball to him, confronted Reynolds and said: "N-----, throw the f---ing ball at me again."
On the next possession, Reynolds was playing safety when a Marble Falls running back broke through the left side and wasn't tackled until he reached the John Jay secondary. Reynolds, who was tied up with a Marble Falls blocker, was not in on the tackle. While video of the play, reviewed by Outside the Lines, clearly shows the Marble Falls player striking Reynolds in the face mask at least twice, only Reynolds, who retaliated by pushing the opposing player's face mask, was ejected from the game by Watts.
When Reynolds came to the sideline, he told John Jay offensive coordinator Roy Garcia and Breed that he'd been called the N-word by Watts, according to a person on the John Jay sideline, who asked not to be identified because of the school district's investigation.
Later in the fourth quarter, when Watts heard John Jay senior defensive lineman Sammy Alvarado speaking Spanish, Watts reacted by saying, "We're in America, speak English," according to Rojas, who said Friday that he overheard the remark.
With the clock winding down and John Jay trailing 15-9, the video shows Rojas hitting a defenseless Watts from behind, knocking him down, followed by Moreno lowering his helmet and piling into Watts while he was on the ground. As Watts rose to his feet, he immediately confronted Hobdy.
"You can't see it on film but the ref was all up in his face, chest to chest," said a team source, who witnessed the exchange from the John Jay sideline.
As Watts confronted Howdy, he said, "Did you hit me?" according to one player's account of the exchange. Hobdy responded by saying: "You don't know who hit you," that same player said.
Watts questioned Hobdy again, asking, "Did you hit me, n-----?" according to the accounts of two John Jay players.
Hobdy was ejected from the game, even though he hadn't hit Watts, while Moreno remained in the game.
As Hobdy came to the sideline, visibly upset, he told offensive coordinator Garcia and defensive position coach Breed about Watts' use of the N-word, according to a source on the John Jay sidelines. That same source said John Jay head coach Gary Gutierrez was made aware of the racist language allegedly used by Watts.
"It burns me up on the inside," the source said, when asked about the impact Watts' alleged remarks had on the John Jay players.
"If the kids [Rojas and Moreno] would have never done anything, this wouldn't be an issue and he'd probably just go on making comments like that."
Rojas and Moreno, who were suspended from the team and the school, will attend Northside Alternative High School pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing conducted by the Northside ISD, and could also face assault charges.
Moreno, an honors student, and Rojas, who received John Jay's "Student of the Year" award as a Freshman, both said they understand they may never play football again but added that they are hopeful school officials will at least allow them to return to John Jay to complete their education.
"Education is my priority ... [I'm] missing out on so many opportunities, besides football, in the classroom and it's hard," Moreno said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.