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Homeschool players fighting for access to public school teams

HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- On a rainy Friday afternoon in October, junior quarterback Stevie Douglas emerged from a well-traveled minivan that had begun its journey in Clinton, La. Teammates Ronald Brown, Rennel Hammond, Mike-el Arvie and Jeremy Arvie emerged from a white van bearing the logo of the New Life Tabernacle Church in Opelousas, La. From other vehicles came more players -- 21 in all -- and they toted their duffel bags into one of the leftover FEMA trailers that served as locker rooms for a tiny football stadium in the shadow of a graveyard.

Once inside, several players dipped into their bags and pulled out their helmets. Then they dipped back into their bags and pulled out screwdrivers to repair their helmets. The team doesn't have an equipment manager for the same reason they didn't come to Hattiesburg in a school bus. To use a school bus, the Patriots would have to play for a brick-and-mortar school.

The vast majority of the players are on this team homeschooled. Their official name is the Christian Home Educators Fellowship Patriots, but for their game against Hattiesburg's Alpha Christian Academy, the public address announcer simply called them the Baton Rouge Patriots. It seemed easier than explaining what the Patriots are: a ragtag team assembled from a 60-mile radius around Baton Rouge that pays for its own equipment, uniforms, transportation and officials and rarely practices on Wednesdays to avoid interfering with church services.

While the Patriots love their team and the opportunity to play, many would prefer to play for public school teams. All know the story of former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a homeschooler who broke state passing records at Nease High, a public school in Ponta Vedra Beach, Fla. Tebow's tale is especially poignant for quarterback Douglas, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder with a bazooka hanging from his right shoulder. Douglas, who will enter college in 2011, has caught the eye of college coaches at camps, but he and his family worry no coach will take him seriously because of the level of competition he faces playing small Christian schools and other homeschool teams.

"They're curious about this unusual creature called the homeschooled football player," said Steve Douglas, Stevie's father and the coach of the Patriots. "They aren't sure what to think."

Stevie's recruiting star rose in March when he won the most valuable player award at a National Underclassmen Combine event at Scotlandville High in Baton Rouge. During the camp, Douglas competed against known prospects from public and private schools across Louisiana. Rivals.com published a story about him, and attention from colleges followed. His mailbox filled with letters from a wide range of schools that included UCLA, Memphis and William & Mary.

Last weekend, Stevie attended the U.S. Army All-American Combine, which brought together the best prospects from the class of 2011. With limited reps, Douglas threw well, and he ran his fastest shuttle time. The showing should result in more mail from colleges. Douglas said he regularly receives mail from Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Tennessee, among others. Dozens of schools, meanwhile, have received mail from Douglas. He sent packages containing a highlight video and a letter explaining that he plays for a homeschool team. The gist of the letter: It's like Tim Tebow, but different. But since coaches aren't allowed to call juniors, Douglas will have to wait until the summer camp circuit to find out what most thought.

"I sent film to pretty much everybody, so they have a highlight tape," Douglas said. "They know I'm homeschooled, and they know I have a halfway decent highlight film."

Douglas has received enough attention that his name is one of the first that appears when one types "homeschool" and "football" into Google. That is precisely how a crew for the company that produces MTV's True Life documentaries found Douglas, and for the past few months, that crew filmed Douglas for the I Am Homeschooled episode that debuted last weekend.

Even the colleges that didn't have his address managed to find Douglas. One day, the elder Douglas took a call from Clinton High, the public school Stevie would attend if he weren't homeschooled. The voice on the line said the school had received some mail for Stevie. "Where is it from?" asked Steve, who works for a pharmaceutical company. "Notre Dame," the voice said. "OK," Steve replied. "We'll come pick that up."

The Douglases wanted Stevie to play at Clinton High. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association has a bylaw that allows homeschoolers to play in their assigned public school, but only if the principal and the school district consent. Stevie has played for the Patriots since Steve founded them five years ago. But this year, the Douglases asked if Stevie could play for Clinton. On July 17, they received a letter from East Feliciana Parish Superintendent Douglas Beauchamp Jr. denying their request. In his letter, Beauchamp cited a since-dead bill in the Louisiana legislature that essentially was redundant to the LHSAA rule already on the books. But Beauchamp did offer one potential solution.

"However, I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to enroll your child in our schools," Beauchamp wrote, "and would welcome your support of our schools."

That didn't sit well with Steve and his wife, Tirzah. They contend that because they pay taxes, they already support the public school system, and they don't understand why their son is being denied the right to take advantage of a service for which they already pay.

"It's some kind of discrimination," Tirzah said. "It's some kind of fear, and I don't know what it is. Businesses not too long ago realized that homeschoolers are an asset, and they're courting them. Colleges are wanting homeschoolers because they're good students."

In a discussion about the rule, Steve Douglas posed an interesting question. What if Tebow had grown up in Clinton, La.? Bob and Pam Tebow, Christian missionaries, probably would have homeschooled their children regardless of where they lived. Would Tim Tebow, playing for a homeschool team, have turned into a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback? Or would he be just another congenitally muscular college student with a crew cut?

For his part, Tebow is grateful homeschool advocate Brenda Dickinson lobbied the Florida legislature to allow homeschoolers to play at public schools in the state. Dickinson fought two years for the law, and she always had the support of Republicans, but she didn't gain traction until after a uniform flap got a girls track team disqualified from a meet. The state's women's caucus took up the cause and accused the Florida High School Activities Association of gender discrimination.

Dickinson sensed an opportunity, and she met with the female state representatives and senators to discuss her bill. When the women learned Dickinson was taking on the FHSAA, they pledged to support her bill. "I had the most conservative men in the legislature," Dickinson said, "and the most liberal women." In 1996, the legislature passed the Craig Dickinson Act -- named after Brenda's late husband -- which guarantees that "an individual home education student is eligible to participate at the public school to which the student would be assigned according to district school board attendance area policies ... or may develop an agreement to participate at a private school, in the interscholastic extracurricular activities of that school."

The rule allowed Tebow's older brother, Robby, to play, and the rest of the Tebow siblings followed. "I was blessed," Tebow said last week. "I loved being homeschooled and having the opportunity to play. I think a lot of homeschoolers should have that opportunity. As time goes by, probably more laws will change."

Maybe. Maybe not. Alabama homeschool advocates have fought for several years to get the "Tim Tebow Bill" passed in their state. The bill died in a house committee in 2006, but its supporters have not quit. After a hearing in Alabama's senate education committee this past April, the bill received new life. It now is known as Senate Bill 305.

In West Virginia, parents Daniel and Christy Jones filed suit against the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission in 2002. Their homeschooled son, Aaron, was not allowed to play sports at a public school in their district. On Sept. 23, 2003, a circuit court judge ruled in favor of the Joneses. But in 2005, the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Justice Robin Davis wrote the majority opinion. "...the parents of homeschooled children have voluntarily chosen [Davis' emphasis] not to participate in the free public school system in order to educate their children at home. In making this choice, these parents have also chosen to forego the privileges incidental to a public education, one of which is the opportunity to qualify for participation in interscholastic athletics."

The Douglases believe in homeschooling. Steve, younger brother William and younger sister Anna are second-generation homeschoolers. When Tirzah was young, her father moved the family from Wisconsin to Pass Christian, Miss., because Mississippi's lack of a compulsory attendance law at the time allowed for homeschooling. Tirzah either teaches her children or supervises their online courses. The Douglases, who are devout evangelical Christians, disapprove of some of the lessons taught in public schools. For example, Steve does not want his children to take science classes that teach evolution as fact. "The thing I was most concerned with was teaching from a Christian perspective," Steve said. "We teach science from a creation standpoint. The theory of evolution is just a theory, and not a very good one."

On a typical day, Stevie wakes up, reads his Bible and begins his school day. He takes math courses using a computer program, and Tirzah guides him through history and science courses. Because Stevie competes on a homeschool debate team, he also studies composition and rhetoric.

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.STAPLES: Mason finds home with homeschoolers

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."

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