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Under the first Friday night light of the high school football season, in a small South Carolina town known as the Peach Capital of the World, the Strom Thurmond Rebels gathered in the end zone under the pines. Strom Thurmond High was established in 1961, the year the local school system integrated, and 23 times the Rebels have brought a regional championship down the state road to their sprawling brick campus with the cannon in front. About 4,000 fans—more than the population of Johnston, the school's town—filled STHS Stadium at twilight and stood as the invocation was read, the national anthem played, the alma mater sung. In a scene that would unfold across the country that evening, cheerleaders formed a human tunnel on the field, and two of them hoisted a white paper banner that read GO BIG BLUE. As the Rebels broke through it, the band erupted, along with generations of alumni and their children.
Strom Thurmond is like a lot of American high schools. The Rebels' opening-night opponent, Eastern Christian Academy, is like no other: It's either a blueprint for the future or a red flag.
Eastern Christian was established six months ago, and with less than three weeks until the start of the academic school year, 54 students are enrolled in grades six through 12. Forty-six are boys, and 46 are on the football team. The staff includes four teachers, a nurse, a minister and seven football coaches. The running backs and defensive backs coach is the director of operations, the de facto principal. Trainers are contracted from the outside, but last week a teacher and a coach filled those roles. Eastern Christian draws students from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it does not have a permanent campus yet, with founder and financial backer David Sills IV considering three sites in Elkton, Md. At one end of the spectrum is a sparkling 141,000-square-foot office building, previously occupied by a plastics company, set amid 90 acres dotted with white-tailed deer. At the other end is a 6,000-square-foot storefront in a strip mall that includes a barbershop and a tattoo parlor.
Eastern Christian has no football facility, either, so the team lifts weights at the Elkton YMCA and practices on an adjacent, pebble-pocked field without yard lines between the goal posts. The field, bordered by a barn and a grain silo, appears to be an abandoned farm. The final preseason practice was set for the Y two days before the opener, but a summer camp needed the space, so Eastern Christian moved to a park across the nearby Delaware border. It, too, did not have yard lines. At six the next morning, the team was on a bus for Johnston. The trip took more than 12 hours, and the air-conditioning broke along the way. Eastern Christian spent the night in nearby Edgefield and arrived at the stadium 14 minutes before kickoff, behind a coach wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, and chewing what looked like a stick.
The visitors won 39--35, which is a surprise only if you judge them by convention. According to Eastern Christian's Player Profile Sheet, 14 team members have already received football scholarship offers from major colleges, with three committed to USC, two to West Virginia and others to Auburn, UConn and Syracuse. Sophomore David Sills V, the 6'3" quarterback with the blond hair and marksman's accuracy, committed to USC when he was 13. Kenny Bigelow a 6'3", 295-pound senior who's considered the nation's second-best defensive tackle by Rivals.com, is also ticketed for the Trojans. Says Dallas Jackson, an analyst for the high school scouting publication, which ranked Eastern Christian No. 75 in its preseason national poll, "They're doing things you just don't see."
Eastern Christian's phone number is unlisted, and its website doesn't pop up on Google. They call themselves the Honey Badgers, their logo a five-fingered paw with a cross in the middle. A patch of the logo, which will be affixed to their road jerseys, was not ready in time for the opener. Their home jerseys, which they ordered from China, also had not arrived. They will presumably wear those on Saturday, when they host Niagara Academy from Lincoln, Ont., at a Baltimore high school field that they only lined up in the last week. "We're an enigma," says Sills IV. "People will come because they want to know who we are."
Most of them were once Red Lions, before they left Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Del., last January. Strictly speaking, Eastern Christian is not even a school but rather a club, with members who attend an online private school called National Connections Academy. "There is a lot of confusion," says Steven Guttentag, president of Baltimore-based Connections Learning, which is the parent company of National Connections. "Eastern Christian is not a school. It's a football training program that provides a site. National Connections Academy is the school. They're our team." Connections Education counts more than 45,000 students among its accredited private and public schools. Its students include everyone from prodigies at New York City's prestigious Juilliard School of Music to Olympic hopefuls, but Eastern Christian represents the company's first foray into team sports. "It's a whole new world for us," says Guttentag. "We're going up against the establishment to get everybody comfortable with it."
While almost all National Connections students take their classes at home, those at Eastern Christian convene Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. Last semester their classrooms were on the second floor of a Deleware office building; they were labeled MATH, SCIENCE, HISTORY, ENGLISH and ELECTIVES and were overseen by on-site instructors National Connections calls "learning coaches." The real teachers are the virtual ones, communicating with students through Adobe software. Class ends at 2:45, and football practice starts at 3. No one is distracted by auditions for a school play or deadlines for a student newspaper.
Approximately 40 college coaches have flocked to Eastern Christian's headquarters, in the Newport, Del., office where Sills runs his commercial contracting company, Daystar Sills. Many of them arrive with scholarship offers for students who could not get to college any other way. "I dreamed of a regular high school like anybody else," says Auburn-bound senior cornerback Jahmere Irvin-Sills. "But if I weren't here, I'd be back in Wilmington running around with the knuckleheads." Irvin-Sills's mother was shot and killed, his grandfather died of a heart attack, and his five-year-old brother died in a house fire. Two years ago the Sillses became Jahmere's legal guardians; two weeks ago Jahmere legally changed his name. "We've probably got 15 Blind Sides on this team," says Honey Badgers coach Dwayne Thomas.
High school sports, and particularly basketball, have been littered in recent years with diploma mills that fit a profile similar to Eastern Christian's. They are created in a hurry, around a star athlete or team, without many other students, and they often don't survive scrutiny from school boards. But the reputation of National Connections, and the fast-growing digitalization of U.S. education, affords Eastern Christian a degree of insulation from skepticism. The growth of charter schools and homeschooling have pushed the number of students in grades K-12 taking online courses well into the hundreds of thousands. "What you're describing is definitely unusual," says Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who spent 11 years investigating diploma mills. "But this sounds like a proctored setting, with adults watching over kids as they do their work and take their exams, and in today's world that's becoming normal."