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Posted: Thursday August 23, 2012 10:27AM ; Updated: Thursday August 23, 2012 10:47AM

High school football's virtual powerhouse (cont.)

By Lee Jenkins, Sports Illustrated

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Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow is one of 14 Eastern Christian Academy players with major college scholarship offers and one of three players already committed to USC.
Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow is one of 14 Eastern Christian Academy players with major college scholarship offers and one of three players already committed to USC.
Gary Bogdon/SI

David Sills IV was a quarterback at Newark (Del.) High, a cornerback at Virginia Military Institute and a prolific developer who fell in love with Red Lion Christian Academy when his contracting firm built a new gym and upper-school addition there in the late 1990s. In 2002, when David V was still in kindergarten, Red Lion asked Sills for help in starting a football program. Over the next decade he assumed almost all the costs for the team. For the first four years, he estimates the bill was $30,000, but after the Lions went winless in 2006, the school wanted to get more serious, and hired Eric Day, an assistant coach from FCS Delaware State. During a bout with kidney stones, Day called Thomas, another assistant at Delaware State, and asked him to oversee the weight program for a while.

Thomas, who had recently overcome non-Hodgkins lymphoma, was looking for a lower-stress lifestyle and later found it as defensive coordinator at Red Lion. The improvement was not immediate; the Lions went 1-9 in 2007. "We were the worst team in Delaware," says Thomas, "so we were arguably the worst team in the country." Thomas began to attract overlooked players from Wilmington with a rigorous training program called FLASH, which was also founded and funded by Sills, and stands for Faithful Leaders Always Serving Him. During FLASH workouts, players tossed tractor tires, lifted PVC pipes filled with water and became enamored with Red Lion. But most could not afford the school's $8,000 tuition, so Sills, with his own money, helped establish the FOCAS (Financially Obedient Christians Assisting Students) Foundation, which offered financial assistance to underprivileged students. "It started out as a good program," says Chuck F. Betters, the senior pastor at Red Lion. "It was a good way to reach inner-city kids."

Over the next three years the demographics of the 700-student school changed dramatically according to administrators, from roughly 2% African-American to more than 30%, many of them from failing public schools. Some of the new students, Thomas says, could barely read when they arrived. The team grade point average was 1.9 in 2009. But the Lions improved in every way, winning 16 of 20 games in 2008 and '09 and raising their GPA to 3.2 by last season. The school suddenly became a national power, and Sills -- who says he invested "millions" in the program -- funded the construction of a well-lit, 1,000-seat football stadium; a practice field with artificial turf; and a wrestling facility where FLASH training could be conducted. In 2007 he also started flying his 10-year-old son to Los Angeles for private lessons with Steve Clarkson, a renowned quarterback tutor who has worked with Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley. Three years later USC coach Lane Kiffin called.

So too did the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, which launched an investigation of Red Lion for numerous violations, including the alleged changing of a player's grade. That charge was never proved, but the DIAA banned the top-ranked Lions from the 2010 state playoffs and put them on probation for assorted other violations: exceeding two-hour practice limits, scheduling an extra middle school game and allowing a coach to play an improper role in the awarding of financial aid to players. Day resigned and was replaced by Thomas, under whom the Red Lions were granted approval from the DIAA in '11 to become an associate member, which allowed them to hold spring practice, start fall camp two weeks early and offer financial aid to lure prospective football and basketball players. But it prevented Red Lion from playing any team from Delaware or participating in postseason play. So the Red Lions scheduled opponents from five states and traveled to college stadiums for four games. They finished 5-5.

By last winter, however, Red Lion was facing an internal crisis. The school was acquired in December by Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church, a group led by Betters, who had founded Red Lion in 1980 and left six years later. "Parents and teachers told me, 'You've got to get rid of the football team, they're ruling the campus, ruining the campus,'" Betters says.

According to Betters, 110 students had left Red Lion and the school was approximately $6 million in debt, in part because of outlays to the scholarship program, which was founded to help build the football team. He says the bank was "days away" from foreclosing on the property. "The reputation of this school was shot. It was the laughingstock of Delaware. Things had to change. We had a school to save, and football had to be put into perspective."

He asked all the football coaches to resign with an opportunity to reinterview for their jobs, making clear that FLASH, FOCAS and a national schedule would have to go.

What followed was a hideous divorce, with the football team on one side and the administration on the other. "They made it sound like football was the reason for all the school's woes," says Bashir Bradley, father of Honey Badgers senior receiver Dhameer Bradley, who is headed to UConn next fall. "They tried to push our kids out." Betters insists he wanted the players to stay, but FOCAS was going to be restructured after the school year, so they would face tuition challenges. Sills called a meeting of the players' parents and presented them with three options. The players could go their own ways. They could transfer en masse to an existing charter school. Or they could start their own school. "That was the worst option for me," says Sills, whose son could play almost anywhere and could afford tuition.

But in Delaware, if an athlete transfers after the start of his sophomore year, he has to sit out the following season. For the most promising Lions, among whom there were only two players with scholarship offers at the time, there was no time to wait. The new school was approved unanimously. "I think it's a shroud for the real reason they're there, and that's to play football," Betters says. "But I hope they succeed."

*****

The players de-enrolled from Red Lion in mid-January, and a week later a National Connections executive was at the office in Newport to enroll the students in online classes. Sills incorporated Eastern Christian Management as a nonstock company in Delaware and says he is currently applying for nonprofit status.

After a faculty reorganization at Red Lion, three former teachers joined the Eastern Christian staff. "I told the guys, 'An online school -- what are you trying to do?'" says Carrie Timmons, one of the teachers. "It sounds crazy, but I think it's going to work." Guttentag, of Connections Learning, says he was pleasantly surprised by the Honey Badgers' academic performance last semester, though the team grade point average fell marginally from 3.2 to 3.18, according to Sills. Several players say the work is harder, including Irvin-Sills, but he appreciates that he's allowed to listen to music on headphones while he does it.

"I like the program because you move at your own pace," says Bigelow, the defensive lineman. "Some guys need more time with a subject, and they get it; some are ahead, and they keep going." Given the budget cuts in public schools and the push for students to specialize in an extracurricular activity, experts generally agree with him. "For kids who are highly motivated, this is probably a good way to go," says Ted Hasselbring, a professor at Vanderbilt's Peabody College. "For kids who aren't motivated and struggle, it's tougher."

In most sports, particularly basketball, baseball and soccer, club teams are common. Eastern Christian signals a move halfway to club football, raising money on its own and sending it to National Connections. Sills believes Eastern Christian will also field volleyball, basketball and track teams this year. He wants every player to join an "academic team" too, which competes against other schools. He expects to hold a prom in the spring. He looks across the prospective 90-acre campus and imagines a football stadium, baseball diamond and softball field. "We'll never put athletics before academics," he promises, "but we'll probably come closer than most."

Though its students take classes online, Eastern Christian Academy is scheduled to play a nationally televised game on Oct. 19.
Though its students take classes online, Eastern Christian Academy is scheduled to play a nationally televised game on Oct. 19.
Gary Bogdon/SI

Eastern Christian should continue to entice football players, with the reputation of its coaches and FLASH training, but drawing others could be difficult. Tuition is $10,000, compared with $6,030 for National Connections Academy, and it's obvious why. Football programs are expensive, and Eastern Christian is not giving scholarships. Parents can help cover tuition by getting sponsors to buy $1,200 advertisements in the stadium and on Eastern Christian's web page, and Sills says he has partnered with a bank to provide families with 15-year loans.

Sills lives in a development that borders Red Lion, and from his house he can see the lights of the stadium his company built. But he is not allowed to step on the campus, part of a legal settlement with the school, which enabled him to take back some of the equipment he donated. The difference between Red Lion's logo and Eastern Christian's is subtle: four short fingers on a paw instead of five long ones, with the cross in the middle. In the first game the Honey Badgers wore their logo on the side their helmets and the Lions' on the back of their jerseys.

Sills did not recoup the shoulder pads, which are too big for some of the new Red Lions, whose center is 190 pounds; a guard weighs in at 205. Twenty-four players came out for the first practice last Wednesday, and when new coach David Needs asked if they'd ever played high school football, four hands went up. They will have to rely on six or seven eighth-graders this season.

Needs has been coaching in Delaware since 1979, when Mount Pleasant High hired him after 16 starters were suspended for alcohol and drug use. Fourteen of the players quit, and the team went 0-8-1 in his first season. Two years later, Mount Pleasant won the Division II title. Needs runs the triple option, and in the first practice he taught the Lions how to stand, how to hold the ball, how to break the huddle. They are starting over, with 10 games on the schedule. "God willing, we'll play it all," Needs says.

The school is in better shape than the team, with a new $5 million loan from TD Bank, which helped cover a renovation of neglected early-education and elementary buildings. Red Lion's enrollment has dropped to 670, but diversity figures remain strong, with more African-American students than last year. In February the DIAA reinstated Red Lion as a full member. As Betters gives a tour, he walks under a banner emblazoned with a verse from Timothy 4:8: PHYSICAL TRAINING IS GOOD BUT TRAINING FOR GODLINESS IS MUCH BETTER.

Many Red Lion students are still friends with Eastern Christian students and wished them luck before the trip to South Carolina. The Honey Badgers led early, trailed at halftime and scored four touchdowns in the second half. Sills was sublime, passing for more than 300 yards and finishing off Strom Thurmond late in the fourth quarter with a 26-yard scamper into the end zone by the pines. After time ran out, the Honey Badgers lingered in the middle of the field, snapping pictures and chatting with fans. They absorbed the atmosphere of an old-fashioned high school, where on fall Friday nights a hundred cliques come together as one.

Finally, Eastern Christian Academy climbed aboard an air-conditioned bus for the long ride back to its virtual home.

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