Homeschoolers fighting to play for public school teams (cont.)
Stevie's teammate Ronald Brown is homeschooled for a different reason. Brown attended public school through second grade, but he struggled with reading. After numerous failing grades and the threat that young Ronald would be written off as a behavior problem, his parents, Debra and Ronald Sr., convinced the school to test their son for a learning disability. The test revealed the younger Brown had difficulty understanding phonics. He could easily learn to read if taught properly. So Debra gave her son an exercise. Read the 23rd psalm aloud over and over for seven days. The younger Brown's reading improved, and Debra and her husband, a registered nurse who also serves as pastor of the New Life church, decided to homeschool their son. "When the principal of the school where he was told me somebody had dropped the ball with him," Debra said, "we made a vow right then that no one else was going to get an opportunity to drop a ball again with our child's education."
So now Debra drives that church van 60 miles each way to take her son, his cousin, Hammond, and the Arvie boys to football practice. Last week, she made a big pot of gumbo for all of the Patriots. Like the Douglases, Brown would love for her son to get the chance to play for a public school team against better competition. "We are taxpayers," Debra Brown said. "So why can't our kids play?"
LHSAA commissioner Kenny Henderson doesn't have a dog in this fight, but he has heard both sides of the argument plenty of times. He said some principals -- the LHSAA, like the NCAA, is governed by its members -- feel parents shouldn't embrace one aspect of the public school program while turning their backs on another. "One of the arguments is that the school is just that, a school," Henderson said. "When you are enrolled in a school, then you buy into what's going on in that school academically and athletically ... You are part of the community. Most of our principals feel like when you have a home school student that basically is allowed to pick and choose, [the parents say] 'That coach is good enough to coach my child, but he's not good enough to teach him in the classroom.' That seems to be the concern that comes out the most."
Other concerns, Henderson said, include the validity of homeschool grades and the possibility that some schools might recruit athletically gifted homeschoolers. Henderson said he expects the homeschool participation rule to appear on the LHSAA's agenda at its convention this month. He doesn't expect any major changes, but he said principals may vote to clarify the language in the rule. "The way our rule is written right now, there's a little bit of ambiguity in there," Henderson said. "What we're looking at doing is, if the principals agree, it would clearly spell out what you have to do if you have a homeschool student playing at your school."
It's unclear whether an amended rule would help Stevie Douglas find a school. If he can't play at Clinton High, he and his parents will face some tough choices. "They have schools that are open to it," Stevie said. "It's just being in the right district."
Stevie has homeschooled friends who swim for Central High in Central, La., but if he wanted to attend that school, his family would have to move to the district. For Stevie to be eligible to play, the Douglases would have to sell or rent their house in Clinton to prove to the LHSAA that they no longer live there. The family has lived in the house 10 years, and no one wants to imagine someone else living there. Stevie, who turns 18 before his senior season begins, could legally emancipate himself and move into the district, and while he smiles wide at the thought, his parents aren't too keen on the idea. Another option would be for Steve and Tirzah to legally separate. "I suggested that last year," Tirzah joked. "I said, 'You want to get a divorce, honey?'"
The Douglases would never go that far, but they are prepared to do something unpleasant. With few other options, Stevie said the family is looking into selling the house and moving into a school district friendlier to homeschoolers. "My parents don't want to leave, but they don't want my senior year to go by without giving me the best opportunity they can," Stevie said. "It's really an awkward situation." If the clarified rule passes, the Douglases believe Stevie could be homeschooled. If not, he may have to attend public school.
Last season, Stevie threw his passes to the Patriots. Some of his receivers played football for the first time. His center, Andrew Hardy, stood 5-3 and weighed 170 pounds. Hardy has the heart of a 300-pounder, but in October that wasn't enough against Alpha Christian defensive linemen who weighed more than 250 pounds. Stevie's best offensive weapon was Pershing Mason, a senior from Baton Rouge who spent the past three seasons playing for Desire Street Academy, the school founded by 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. When Desire Street Academy ran out of money last summer, several of Mason's teammates transferred to Capital High, a public school in Baton Rouge that shared a district with Desire Street. Mason wanted to attend a Christian School, so he chose Christian Life Fellowship. Given his circumstances, he was sure he would receive a hardship to play football for the school. An LHSAA committee denied Mason the hardship.
Mason, who has received interest from Louisiana-Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana, landed with the Patriots. When he attended his first practice, he wasn't sure what to think. "First time coming to practice, they were like, 'Oh my gosh. You're so good,'" Mason said. "And I'm saying to myself, 'I'm not that good.'" Mason didn't worry as much after he saw the team's tall, rangy quarterback. "I saw this guy throwing," Mason said, "and I was like, OK."
Other homeschooled Patriots, Brown and Hammond, for example, might grow into recruitable players. But Steve Douglas isn't sure college coaches will give players from homeschool teams a fair shake because the coaches have doubts about the level of competition. A college coach who recruits Louisiana knows exactly what kind of opponents a recruit faced playing for Evangel Christian or Bastrop High. But when a recruit's schedule includes games against the Dallas Home School Athletic Association North and Acadiana Prep, college coaches don't know what to think.
Steve Douglas also worries college coaches might stay away from his son for fear of breaking NCAA rules. The NCAA has strict guidelines governing contact with athletes' parents and home visits, but college coaches are allowed more freedom to visit a prospect's school. Since Stevie's dad is his coach, are college coaches allowed to contact Steve? And since Stevie's home is his school, would a visit count as an in-home visit?
Since many public- and private-school athletes have a head coach for a parent, the NCAA manual includes an exception to parental contact rules when a parent is also a coach. So as long as Steve coaches his son, college coaches may call him as much as they'd like. The home-visit issue isn't covered in the manual, but NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn wrote in an e-mail that a coach can make recruiting contact in a home provided it occurs during an NCAA-determined "contact period." On the academic side, the NCAA offers a detailed list of answers to questions it frequently receives from homeschooling parents on its Web site.
Another issue is timing. Even if Stevie lands on a public school team, most Football Bowl Subdivision schools will already have accepted commitments from quarterbacks. Unlike linemen, linebackers or defensive backs, schools rarely take more than one quarterback in a recruiting class. So Stevie will have to make a name for himself on the camp circuit again.
Still, those schools will want to see video of Stevie playing 11-on-11 football. If Steve sends video of the Alpha Christian game, they'll see a polished pocket passer with excellent fundamentals. They'll also see receivers dropping passes and Stevie trying to force balls into coverage while getting attacked by defensive linemen far larger than most of the Patriots' blockers. They'll see the Patriots put up a great fight for 25 minutes, scoring on a five-yard Douglas touchdown pass on a slant and again on a Mason kickoff return to start the second half. Then they'll see the Patriots, most of whom play both ways, succumb to fatigue and cramping. The score will be 14-14 after the Mason kickoff return, but Alpha Christian will win 44-14 to drop the Patriots to 1-5 on the season. Douglas will complete 9-of-26 passes for 131 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
What will it mean to those coaches? That's tough to guess. Will they look at Douglas' arm strength, footwork and mechanics and extrapolate, or will they move on to a quarterback who had better teammates and proved himself against better competition?
At the moment, the Douglases figure the only way Stevie can answer those questions is by leaving the homeschool team and playing his senior season at a public school. One way or another, the Douglases will have to find a way to get Stevie on a roster. His arm will take it from there.
"We like our home school program that we've developed, and we have kids we're trying to help there, too," Steve Douglas said. "But we also have to look at what's best for our son, too. We have to look at those possibilities."