One year ago, talented junior wide receiver/safety Tommylee Lewis intercepted four passes for Palm Beach Lakes (West Palm Beach, Fla.) in the Rams' spring football game against Lake Worth. When fall practices began in August, however, Lewis was a no-show for the first day of fall practices at Palm Beach Lakes.
That's because during the summer, he transferred to powerhouse Dwyer, about a 10-minute drive north in Palm Beach Gardens.
Palm Beach Lakes head coach Alonzo Jefferson was stunned to learn the news, yet not totally surprised. Two other highly touted players who lived in the Palm Beach Lakes school district also had taken their athletic talents to Dwyer during the past four years — running back/linebacker Matt Elam, now a freshman at Florida, and quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a 2011 UF signee.
"It's no use complaining about it. Kids are going to go play where they think they can win," said Jefferson, a West Palm Beach native and former standout running back at Cardinal Newman High and Notre Dame before a knee injury ended his career. "It's the politics of life."
It's also become the norm in the metropolitan three-county South Florida region that includes Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach. Big-name players transferring to a high-profile football program happens throughout the nation, but the perception is that it is more prevalent in Florida, particularly in the southeast portion of the Sunshine State, which annually produces a truckload of the nation's top Division I players.
The Florida High School Athletic Association, the state's governing body for sports, has rules forbidding recruiting students for athletic purposes. But rigorously policing the schools is such an overwhelming task that the FHSAA basically only investigates alleged recruiting infractions when it's brought to their attention. And even then, proving it can be as difficult as snagging an alligator in the Everglades.
"Just by virtue of a student changing schools, for whatever reason, from another state or another county or within the same county, that would not in and of itself constitute us needing to look at it," Denarvise Thornton, the FHSAA's associate executive director for compliance and eligibility, said in a recent interview with the Palm Beach Post about the subject. He admitted that it can be a complicated matter.
Highly touted Division I prospects have been switching schools with regularity in Miami-Dade County for so long that it's almost become an accepted way of life in high school football there. South Florida Sun-Sentinel sportswriter Christy Cabrera-Chirinos reeled off a dozen names off the top of her head when she tried to recall how many major college recruits in neighboring Broward County had switched schools in the past two years.
National powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) has been "accused" by coaches and fans alike of recruiting players from all over the region, but the school has not been found to have violated any FHSAA rules. The same unproven accusations have been thrown at Dwyer, which has become a nationally ranked program.
The Panthers' success over the past few years is what Dwyer officials say attracts some players to transfer there.
Jefferson offers another possible reason.
"All these kids have neighborhood agents," he said.
That perception might be real. Many players are steered to a program where they might have a chance to play for a championship-caliber team and thus have more opportunity to be recognized by major D-I college coaches. Jefferson understands that a parent or close friend of a player's family want the best for the kid, and he said it's difficult to combat that logic. But he doesn't like the process, especially when a player transfers at the end of his junior year.
Rising senior Zach Slafsky, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker, is one of five players from Olympic Heights (Boca Raton) who in recent months have transferred to American Heritage-Delray, the Class 1A state runner-up last year and a highly successful program over the past five years. Slafsky said the resignation of head coach Mitch Henghold in March played a role in his decision to leave Olympic Heights, but that was not the only reason.
"Olympic Heights was going through some changes and I just thought it would be better for me to come here for my senior year," Slafsky said after a recent spring practice at Heritage. "A lot of colleges come through here."
Rick Swain, a veteran coach of 38 years at Boynton Beach High, has seen three outstanding players in recent years transfer from his school to nearby American Heritage, a private school in neighboring Delray Beach, and he's beginning to wonder if his efforts in developing players for two years are nothing more than that of a middle school feeder program.
"I've had to develop a quarterback every year," said Swain, who used to coach in Gainesville and now is entering his fifth season at Boynton Beach. "I've now seen that it's not uncommon to see these kids get up and go wherever. It's not Florida, it's South Florida. I coached in Gainesville and you might see a good passing quarterback transfer to a (program) that throws the ball more, but it was nothing like down here. These kids all of a sudden say, ‘OK, I'm going to go here,' and they go."
Swain is in a fraternity of coaches who share that perception and that fraternity has been growing in numbers almost as fast as foreclosures in the housing market. It's a dilemma that appears to have many loopholes.
In the past decade, many public schools have added academic magnet programs that allow students to attend a school outside their designated school district that might not offer a particular specialized curriculum. It basically has opened the doors for student-athletes to transfer more easily to a school outside their district lines.
Swain believes the only way to stop, or at least somewhat curtail, the influx of tranfers each year is for the FHSAA to enforce a hard-fast rule.
"It's a simple solution," Swain said. "Anybody can transfer anywhere they want to, but they have to sit out a year. If the state would do that, then they would be transferring for the right reasons. If they truly transfer for academic reasons, then sitting out a year is no big deal.
"If a parent physically moves from one area to another, that's different," Swain continued. "But to let a kid say, ‘Oh, I've decided I want to be in aerospace engineering my junior or senior year.' What you're doing is letting the kids control everything right now."