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.