LA Times
September 24, 2004

Practicing Faith and Football
Christian boys who are home-schooled get a chance to experience a high school ritual. Some start with little more than enthusiasm.

By Ellen Barry
Times Staff Writer

CANTON, Ga. - It is a late summer afternoon and the practice field is full of the sound of boys hitting boys. Shoulders down, eyes ahead, they collide with a little whoosh of air, again and again.

Today, like so many days, the North Georgia Falcons have suffered a number of small deprivations. Their uniforms are secondhand, inherited from a Catholic college in upstate New York. And once again, they have been booted off their practice field by the Buffington Lady Braves, elementary school softball players.

Undaunted, the Falcons resume their practice in a narrow L-shaped clearing behind an abandoned tennis court. As they block out plays, players and coaches pick up little stones that litter the grass and throw them into the woods. The field is also inhabited by a rooster. Every now and then, it lets out a resounding barnyard crow.

Never mind; the Falcons have high ambitions. They are part of the Georgia Football League, eight teams of Christian home-schoolers from Atlanta's suburbs. As August turned into September, the boys claimed for themselves this slice of Americana: the shock of running out into the dazzling light of the stadium; the bruised, unforgettable heroism of Friday night.

Underlying the league's first season is a message of independence. Three years ago, Georgia legislators killed a bill that would have allowed home-schooled children to participate in public school sports, as they do in Florida and 13 other states. It was a sad defeat for Georgia's home-schoolers.

But by the next fall, a few fathers had rounded up nine boys and suited them with pads and helmets; the second year they found 28 players. This year, when the same fathers took on the challenge of forming a league, the response startled them: 250 boys signed up.

And just like that, home-schooled kids were in on a seminal high school experience - purged of trash talk, bloodthirsty rivalry and short cheerleading skirts. As the league grows, its organizers hope, families will have one less reason to return to public schools, or "government schools," as some parents call them.

"I want you to learn to live like a deer! Drink fresh water and eat acorns!" bellowed head coach Roger McDaniel near the end of a recent practice, as the players knelt and looked up at him, helmets in their hands. His voice grew softer, then, and he told them to hold their heads up. They were pioneers, he told them, building a bridge for others to follow.

First, though, they had to learn to play football.

Among the 26 boys who showed up to the Falcons' first practice were experts in goat husbandry, classical violin, civil air patrol, brick masonry, chess, community theater, paintball and the installation of air conditioners. Most of them buzz-cut and gangly, they looked like ordinary boys, but they weren't exactly.

When they arrived, the coaches asked for a show of hands, which confirmed their expectations: Only six of the boys had ever played football. Most prepared for the practice - not tryouts, because any interested boy made the team - the way home-schoolers prepare for everything.

One boy had sat down with his mother in front of a computer and searched the Internet for "football." Another went to the library and checked out a book. Jordan McDaniel, the coach's 16-year-old son, would set up a chessboard to demonstrate to the other boys how to run a play.

There were a few, like Jordan, who had spent years aching to play high school football. A blond, square-shouldered boy, Jordan began a campaign of persuasion at the age of 11, begging his parents to allow him to attend the local public school and play on its legendary team.

Jordan felt they were cheating him of his dream, and he told them so. He tried every angle. He appealed to his father's sense of fair play and nostalgia; more than 40 years ago, before he became a devout Christian, Roger McDaniel played quarterback for the University of Mississippi. But Roger believed that God was telling him to educate Jordan at home.

"I'd tell him, 'You need to get on your knees every night and you need to pray to the Lord to send you a football team,' " said McDaniel, 62.

He will admit, now, that the battles caused him pain. "I told my wife, 'You know what? He's right. It's not fair.' "

The same tensions pulled at families all over the home-school community, said Hank St. Denis, a Roswell real estate agent who has home-schooled seven children.

Home-schooling in Georgia is still primarily fueled by religious conviction. But the children, typically, grow up in ordinary suburban subdivisions. They play with neighborhood kids after they pour off school buses, and they watch their friends experience the rituals of high school. Over the last decade, as the number of home-schoolers climbed to an estimated 50,000, parents appeased their children's complaints with equivalent activities: honor societies, proms, yearbooks. Basketball and baseball leagues were simple enough propositions. But football - with its $400 uniforms and daily three-hour practices - hovered out there, unattainable.

For boys, the longing to play football became an "undertow," breaking the will of family after family, St. Denis said.

"It is the deal-breaker in home-schooling," said St. Denis, director of the football league.

The Falcons' first few practices were all hunger and inexperience. Lined up to practice offensive plays, the center would hike the ball clear over the head of the quarterback, who would look after it with a surprised expression. Defensive linemen would hold onto their opponents' shirts for dear life, hoping it constituted a tackle. The coaches harangued them, then stroked them, then harangued them again. A common theme: Hit someone.

"You are a steamroller! You are a bulldozer! You are a pancake builder!" yelled Jerry Redmond, an assistant coach, when an offensive lineman hesitated. "I still see you waltzing! These guys don't want to dance with you! They don't even like you!"

After a few weeks, a higher percentage of plays were being completed. The ball arched high into the air, over a cluster of boys and into the hands of David Lister, a lean, dark-haired 17-year-old. Josh Veal, 15, the quarterback, darted through the defense the way a tropical fish darts through coral.

At the last practice before the season opener, after instructions about the next day's game, the coaches gave a quiet talk on what they were about to experience: How it can be hard to breathe when you run out of the tunnel into the light. How, when they meet here the next time, they would no longer be practicing, but polishing.

Then the coaches watched their players go home for dinner. Standing on the practice field, in the gathering dark, they wore serene expressions. They weren't fooling themselves.

"There are probably about 10 guys out there who know what they are doing," St. Denis said.

"That's stretching it," said Redmond, mildly.

The air was heavy with humidity on Game Night, and katydids throbbed. In search of a stadium for the Falcons' home games, St. Denis had called county recreation departments all over the state without success; the local public middle school had given them a withering cold shoulder. Finally, St. Denis found a privately owned field that he could rent for $250. A hundred yards of green beckoned under the lights.

Knee-length pleated skirts had arrived for the Falcon cheerleaders, a mostly prepubescent group of players' sisters. Enjoined from using dance moves, jumps, high kicks or derogatory cheers, they chanted, "We don't need music, we don't need bands, all we need are Falcons fans! Screaming in the stands! Screaming in the stands!"

Whoa, thought Reggie Cherry, the Falcons' third-string quarterback, when he saw the War Hill Warriors. His stomach flipped over with fear and happiness. It felt just like the way he had dreamed it. The team ran out onto the field.

On this sultry night, the Falcons were suburban teenagers like any others. Among the first generation of Georgian kids to be home-schooled their whole lives, some worry about the stereotype of home-schoolers as sheltered and socially awkward.

The more critical among them use the word "home-schooler" as an epithet, as in, "He's such a home-schooler," meaning he wears plaid shirts and pleated khaki pants and speaks like an assistant professor. David Lister gives this example: When an airplane flies over a group of teenage boys, the home-schooler is the one who might be inclined to identify the plane, or, worse, to begin listing all the fighter planes or jets that he is aware of.

David, by contrast, is a little bit of a jock, though this was not an easy path for him. David's mother, Terri, who is teaching eight children at home, has come to believe that sports are an unhealthy obsession, "almost a god of our country." The fragments of rock music played over the sound system at games make her cringe with their "sensual tone," and, recalling her own days as a high school cheerleader, she worries about alcoholism and immorality spreading under the bleachers. But when David, her oldest, reached his teens, the boy was so entranced with sports - so talented and so explosively energetic - that she and her husband decided to relax their rules.

"We're having to learn to let go, little by little," she said.

The crowd began to scream a little when Jordan, the coach's restless son, scored a touchdown three minutes into the game. He scored again in the second quarter, propelling his body forward with such enthusiasm that the announcer called out, "No dancing in the end zone!"

It was, both teams agreed, a sweet occasion - just being there, at that particular point, playing a game of football.

Never mind that the Warriors had never played in helmets until that night, and were having trouble seeing the ball. The Falcons, on a winning team for the first time in their lives, were conscious of being part of a movement, of the gradual expansion of their world. Later this season, they hope to have a band, and before long, a home-school sports complex on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Few players were more impressive than David, who, having grown up without a television, had seen only a handful of games in his life. At the beginning of the third quarter, David, a punt returner, caught the ball 55 yards from the end zone.

David found a hole - later, it was hard to say how he found it - and ran and ran and just kept running. He scored a third touchdown for the team, and the North Georgia Falcons began their march to victory.

Times staff researcher Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.