Eastern Christian Academy (Elkton, Md.)
, by name alone, is new to the national high school football scene.
However, Eastern Christian Academy’s players and coaching staff are not.
Does the name David Sills
ring a bell? He’s the former Red Lion Christian Academy quarterback who verbally committed to Southern California in seventh grade
and earned MaxPreps Freshman All-American accolades
in 2011 after throwing for 2,340 yards and 28 touchdowns in his second varsity season. He’ll be under center for Eastern Christian.
How about Kenny Bigelow
? The 6-foot-4, 285-pound MaxPreps Junior All-American
lineman has also verbally committed to play at USC and has already been invited to play in the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game. He’ll be chasing opposing quarterbacks.
Other Eastern Christian players with Division I offers on the table include guard Khaliel Rodgers
, wide receiver/defensive back Dhameer Bradley
, defensive back Jahmere Irvin-Sills
, running back Wendell Smallwood
and wide receivers Daikiel Shorts
and Neiko Creamer
These are just a handful of 30 former Red Lion players who played a national-caliber schedule last year and will suit up this year for Eastern Christian Academy. The new football program was established after Red Lion Christian’s administration decided to change the direction of its football program, from playing a national schedule as an independent back to competing under the guidelines of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Red Lion’s decision was rendered shortly after the end of last season, and it was then that former Red Lion head coach Dwayne Thomas, who will serve as head coach at Eastern Christian, and a group of parents decided they needed to continue to move their talented team forward, and not take a step back.
“We felt that the kids were progressing and getting notoriety and opportunities that they hadn’t gotten in the past,” Thomas said. “And we felt a strong obligation to continue on that path.”
If it was just a matter of placing a few players on another team, that would have been an easy transition. But Thomas wanted the team to stay together, and so he met with parents to discuss options. The group decided the most feasible option was to enroll the kids in National Connections Academy.
Fifty students have enrolled in the school, which was established in 2003 and, according to its website, serves more than 60,000 people, providing “an affordable, private virtual school option to students seeking a rigorous, but flexible education.” The program is sanctioned and accredited by the state of Maryland and Eastern Christian Academy is considered a program under the school’s umbrella.
Unlike many online schools, the Eastern Christian students will gather in appropriate groups in classrooms to take the online courses and will have academic coaches (teachers) in the classroom to supplement the online teachers.
“This creates a school setting for socialization, which we feel is important,” said interim head of school Chris Purnell. “It allows the students to move at their own pace with an individualized curriculum. It is much harder than a normal school where much of the teaching is done to the middle of the class. Here, the kids are encouraged to progress into honors and advanced placement courses. The course selection is outstanding, including many high-level courses and many languages.”
In addition, players will be required to volunteer in the community and compete on at least one academically related school team.
“We strongly believe these players need to be well-rounded Christian young men, not just athletes,” Thomas added. “In a way, we are requiring more of them off the field than a traditional high school would.”
And what happens to the football program and school when this initial group of highly ranked players move on?
“We have been very involved in the Christian community for a long time and these boys are the third generation,” Purnell said. “This is a permanent ministry for the benefit of many young kids with their priorities in the correct order: God, family, academics and extracurricular activities, which includes football.
“We want them to get a college education. Many of them cannot afford college and football is a vehicle to get a higher education. It also teaches many life skills such as competitiveness and determination, leadership and teamwork, the ability to work with people, and many other skills that are just not taught in the classroom.”
The coaching staff’s philosophy has already delivered success stories.
Angelo Blackson, a former Red Lion lineman now playing at Auburn University, has said that without the guidance of the former Red Lion coaching staff, now at Eastern Christian, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“More than anyone else that football program helped me,” Blackson told MaxPreps in a July 2010 interview. “The coaches wouldn’t let you quit and taught me discipline, mentally and physically, through football.”
Thomas stressed that the foundation on which the Eastern Christian football program will be built upon is about impacting lives in a positive way.
Yes, they will play a national schedule this fall, having already had verbal discussions with and contracts drawn to play several national powers. And yes, they will play to win and hope to be ranked in the Top 25 in the country. But Thomas continued to reiterate that football will be secondary to making a difference in the lives of the young men who are being coached.
“Young people today have every opportunity to fail,” Thomas said emphatically. “So if we can find a way for them to succeed, we have to strongly direct them on that successful path.”
Jon Buzby is the sports columnist for the Newark Post, a freelance writer, and on the broadcast team for the 1290AM The Ticket High School Football and Basketball Games of the Week. You can reach him at email@example.com.