The last thing Tyrell Gullatt needed was a pedestal.

Yet there the Windham High School football star stood in December, a finalist for the coveted Frank J. Gaziano Defensive Lineman Award, even as he faced charges of sexually assaulting two young children.

Innocent until proven guilty? Without a doubt.

Better off now that his tarnished name has been elevated to the top echelon of his high-profile sport for all the world to see? Not in the least.

We’ll leave it to our court system to decide whether Gullatt, now 18, is in fact guilty of sexually assaulting two young girls – now ages 5 and 8 – while they were visiting his home with their families in 2014 and 2013, respectively.

But this much is already clear: Windham school officials who nominated Gullatt for the award, with full knowledge that he faced two charges of gross sexual assault at the time, did neither him nor their school any favors by apparently thinking they could celebrate their star athlete on the one hand while he braced himself for a criminal prosecution on the other.

Instead, Principal Chris Howell, Athletic Director Rich Drummond and football Coach Matt Perkins – all of whom wrote letters of recommendation nominating Gullatt for the award – piled all the more public attention onto their hometown hero at the very point in his life when he could have used less.

Talk about dropping the ball.

At its core, this is a troubling story of a high school athlete whose future is at best uncertain: Guilty or not of the serious charges he now faces, life as Gullatt once knew it will never be the same.

But throw in the Gaziano award hoopla – the runner-up trophy, the $1,000 scholarship check and the glory that comes with being named one of the top high school football players in Maine – and suddenly Gullatt becomes the unwitting poster boy for all that is wrong with our sports-centric society.

“What do you want to bet this guy will get a slap on the wrist at the most, be awarded with a college scholarship and a six-figure job when he gets out – all because he was a BMOC (big man on campus),” wrote the first of many readers to comment on a story about Gullatt in Wednesday’s Press Herald.

What’s worse, as the spotlight glares down on Gullatt for all the wrong reasons, so does it now singe his school, his sport and even the legacy of longtime sports booster Frank J. Gaziano, who once said, “Sports is the healthiest thing that can happen to us today.”

All of which brings us to one painfully obvious question: What were school officials in Windham thinking?

When police told them back in November that the felony charges had been filed against Gullatt, why did they not quietly shelve any and all plans to nominate him for the prestigious Gaziano award?

His guilt or innocence notwithstanding, did they honestly think this was a good time to be raising this kid’s profile not just in his community, but across the entire state?

Coach Perkins and Athletic Director Drummond aren’t talking.

But in an interview with the Press Herald on Wednesday, Principal Howell explained his recommendation letter thusly: “I did not have any information that would prevent me from commenting about (Gullatt’s athletic) performance or him as a student at Windham High School.”

That may be true. But Howell needed only to consult with Coach Perkins, who happens to chair the Gaziano selection committee, to learn that this award is about much more than grades and game stats.

As the awards website notes, applicants must first and foremost possess “personal standards and accomplishments which are positive models for others” and “high levels of integrity, honesty and athletic citizenship.”

Is it just me, or would the phrase “two pending felony charges,” had it been scribbled onto the bottom of Gullatt’s otherwise stellar application, have given the selection committee pause?

(Better yet, Windham’s school hierarchy could simply have announced “nomination withdrawn” and left it for the criminal justice system to decide how and when Gullatt should be held publicly accountable for his alleged crimes.)

Little wonder that selection committee member Peter Cloutier blew a gasket this week upon hearing that Drummond and Perkins both knew all about Gullatt’s criminal problems – yet said nothing – while the committee deliberated in December.

“We should have known,” said Cloutier, a retired Class A football official. “We should have been made aware. And I’m terribly upset.”

If I were Cloutier, I’d be even more upset that Perkins wore dual hats as both the selection committee’s chairman and as Gullatt’s head football coach.

Knowing what Perkins knew while allowing his star lineman’s name to advance from nominee to semifinalist to finalist, without so much as a time out, wasn’t just wrong. It was a conflict of interest on steroids.

It’s also enough to make you wonder about the line that separates the player from the program. Could it be that winning this award had as much to do with the reputation of Windham football as it did the resume of Tyrell Gullatt?

But enough sports chatter.

Lost in all the trophy talk is the infinitely more important fact that there are two young girls and their families out there who allege that Gullatt did something terrible to them, something that has nothing to do with football, something that if proven true beyond a reasonable doubt cannot go unpunished.

Until that proof is brought forth, our system of justice demands that we presume Tyrell Gullatt innocent.

But in the meantime, common sense would suggest we escort him off the stage.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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