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Eastern Christian Academy is H.S. football's first virtual powerhouse

This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.

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 Delaware 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."

The NCAA considers National Connections Academy "an approved nontraditional course provider" and in October 2010 published a list of National Connections courses it accepts. "There are some estimates that by 2020, about 50 percent [of high school classes] will be taken online," says Lisa Roesler, director of High School Review for the NCAA. "We know that it's growing, and we're trying to stay ahead of it." A study released by the Department of Education in 2009 stated that blended learning -- which mixes traditional classroom teaching with virtual instruction -- "had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online."

What satisfies the Department of Education, however, does not always meet the standards of college admissions departments. Despite the many coaches swarming Eastern Christian, several expressed concern about recruiting there. "To have a totally based curriculum of online classes, it's something we don't do," says an FBS head coach, whose program has not offered scholarships to Eastern Christian players. "It's tricky. They can say something fulfills an English requirement, and they're really watching movies online. We just stay away from it altogether."

National Connections has developed a variety of methods to authenticate students' work, including pop quizzes and plagiarism checks, and NCAA associate director of High School Review, Mark Hicks, says it is easier to monitor electronic schools than brick-and-mortar ones. Others, however, cast a wary eye toward Eastern Christian. The Honey Badgers scheduled nine games and are looking for two more, but at least one of their games -- a showdown against vaunted John Curtis Christian in River Ridge, La., ranked fifth nationally by Rivals and set to be televised by ESPN on Oct. 19 -- is in jeopardy because the Louisiana Athletic Association mandates that its schools play teams recognized by their respective states.

National Connections expects Eastern Christian to follow the same rules as members of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and applied to that governing body for "standards of competition verification." They were rejected on Aug. 8, according to a Maryland Department of Education spokesman, because of a technicality: The MPSSAA only recognizes private schools that want to play state public schools, of which there are none on the Honey Badgers' schedule. "They have a small window, or I will have to find somebody else to play," says J.T. Curtis, coach of John Curtis Christian.

Eastern Christian is reapplying to the MPSSAA this week. Two prominent high school coaches in Maryland were asked if they would have scheduled the Honey Badgers. One said his administration would balk, calling the Honey Badgers "an AAU football team." The other said he would and called them "awesome players and class people." So even their peers don't know entirely what to make of them. "If we're telling the truth, that we just want to help these kids, we're virtuous," Sills says. "If we're lying, we're the most evil people in America. So it comes down to this: Do you believe us?"

*****

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."

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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