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Paying $56,000 to play high school football this fall? Charlotte families make sacrifices

Former Hopewell High quarterback A.J. Simpkins officially enrolled at Christ School this week.
Former Hopewell High quarterback A.J. Simpkins officially enrolled at Christ School this week.(GABBI BYRD PHOTOGRAPHY. ILLUSTRATION BY MATT L. STEPHENS, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER)
Published: Aug. 29, 2020 at 10:59 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER) - A few months ago, Brad Simpkins never thought he would’ve spent Tuesday morning driving from Huntersville to Arden, just south of Asheville, to enroll his son in a private school.

His son, A.J., was the star quarterback at Hopewell High. The coaches loved him. His friends loved him. But when coronavirus shut down high school sports in March, the plans slowly started to change.

By June, fearing that there might not be a football season, effectively ending A.J.’s shot to play in college, the Simpkins family decided to transfer from Hopewell to Christ School, where A.J. will repeat the 11th grade and reclassify to the class of 2022.

The N.C. High School Athletic Association, which governs the state’s 421 mostly public schools, won’t be playing football this fall, instead delaying the sport until second semester. And unlike districts in surrounding counties, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is not allowing its teams to gather for skill development until further notice. These two stoppages of play have led borderline major college prospects around Charlotte to seek football refuge where the game will still be played Friday nights.

The Observer surveyed 140 public schools in and around Charlotte on the North Carolina side of the border to learn how many football programs have had players transfer out to avoid waiting until February to play their seasons. Seventy coaches responded. At least 22 football players have changed schools for football purposes. Of those, 14 have transferred to either area private schools or South Carolina public schools.

For Simpkins, that meant an all-boys boarding school that costs $56,670 per year. The school’s nearly 300 students come from 18 states and eight countries, and because its governed by a private school league separate from the NCHSAA, his new team will still play football this fall.

The N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association, which has 97 private school members including Christ School, has voted to play football beginning the week of Sept. 21.

“We moved because of all the uncertainty,” said Brad Simpkins, whose son announced his intention to transfer before the football season was officially postponed. “We’re living in a very different world today, and there’s uncertainty with what is going to happen with football across the board, and not just high school. Specifically affecting my son was: What was the state association going to do? And then, on top of that, what was CMS going to do?

“... I can’t speak highly enough about (the staff at Hopewell). So while we feel good about our decision, we feel absolutely horrible about so many kids that are facing the fact that they’re not going to play this fall and it’s no fault of their own.”

Preventing more players from making similar moves is a battle teammates are fighting.

“I literally live, like, 300 yards from the (S.C.) border,” Marvin Ridge quarterback Sully McDermott said. “I can walk there. Seeing private schools play is hard as well. I know we don’t have a say in it, but I want to play. We all want to play. There’s a bunch of seniors on our team and we can’t go to college (campuses), we can’t go to camps. We’re not getting our name out there, and there’s been a lot of talk about people trying to go across the border and play. Some of our young players need to tape to show coaches. It’s hard to keep them, because they want to play, just like all of us.”

THE FALLOUT AT MYERS PARK HIGH

When Scott Chadwick took over at Myers Park High before the 2014-15 school year, the Mustangs hadn’t been considered a state power for decades. The school made a run to the state semifinals in 2005, but hadn’t won a conference championship since the early 1980s.

In eight seasons before his arrival, Myers Park had produced one winning record.

Chadwick’s first team was 5-7. His second was 7-6. In 2016, his third team tied the school’s all-time record for wins in a season, going 11-2. Since then, Myers Park is 37-5 and has been nationally ranked each year.

Before the 2020 season was moved to early next year, Myers Park returned enough starters, including preseason All-America quarterback Drake Maye, that the Mustangs were among the favorites to win a state title, which would be a first at one of the largest schools in North Carolina.

But since the CMS decision to indefinitely postpone workouts, Chadwick said, he has lost five players, including offensive linemen Cade Purgason, Cam Nichols and Bo Crutcher; and quarterbacks Owen and Aiden McCown, sons of former NFL starter Josh McCown.

Owen McCown, a 6-foot-1 junior, has offers from Charlotte, UNLV and Virginia Tech.

Chadwick expects all five to play in college.

“It would be disingenuous to say that hasn’t put a big dent in our program,” Chadwick said. “Anytime you lose players that are critical contributors to your program, it’s tough, and I think part of building the program is the (parents) who are involved as well. And in this case, Josh McCown was offensive coordinator, Roger (Purgason) was equipment manager and Bryan Crutcher (Bo’s father) is in charge of corporate sponsorships. Those guys are critical parts of the program, too.”

Chadwick added: “Josh’s family is the only family on his and his wife’s side who don’t live in Texas. So with us not having workouts all summer, they spent most of it in Texas with family and after being there all summer, I think they were reminded they were the only family not in Texas.”

But there is some good news.

Maye (UNC commit), wide receiver Jordan Bly (Old Dominion), defensive back Tahj El (Old Dominion) and kicker Matt Dennis (Wake Forest) have the option to graduate early and enroll in college in the spring. But Chadwick said Maye, Bly and El will return for their senior high school seasons in the spring. Dennis will head to Winston-Salem in January.

“We understand that no one is going to feel sorry for us, and that’s fine,” Chadwick said. “We still have an awful lot of really good football players and a very good staff to coach them.”

WILL CLUB SPORTS FILL THE VOID?

With CMS football teams unable to practice, an email was sent last week from a vendor called Peach Jar. The district uses the service to allow school-related groups and school-sponsored and curriculum-related materials to reach to parents and students.

The email featured an ad for a 9-on-9 club football league being run by an organization started by former Independence High and Charlotte 49ers star Austin Duke, who also played for the Carolina Panthers. The APD 9-on-9 league costs $199 per player and kicks off Sept. 4 at the Matthews SportsPlex.

The Observer contacted three CMS football coaches, and all said they were surprised to see the district at least appear to promote club football when their schools were not allowed to be on the field.

CMS spokesperson Brian Hacker said that the district has guidelines and requirements for using Peach Jar, including being tax-exempt nonprofits that offer “educational, recreational, cultural or character development activities and programs for school-aged children.”

Hacker said the email containing the football flyer was approved because it met those guidelines, adding that the league is not being held on CMS property or during school hours.

For the coaches, the timing was interesting.

“It was very puzzling,” Chadwick said, “to try to figure out why an email would go out publicizing an opportunity for our athletes to participate in football with a community organization when they’re not allowed to participate in football with their own CMS coaches.”

CMS athletic director Sue Doran said she expects some district players to explore club options this fall. There will be several leagues and camps for football players in the Charlotte area, including at least two 7-on-7 leagues.

“That’s one of those unintended consequences to a really tough situation,” Doran said of the fall leagues and camps. “We can’t control what outside groups are organizing to try to get our student-athletes to participate with them. I just hope once we do we have our student-athletes back on our campuses, that’s going to ultimately be the larger draw for the majority of these high school students (versus) outside clubs or organizations, because there’s nothing like playing for your high school team. So I’ve just got to hope that once we do open the door and they start coming back, that they run back to us.”

‘WE HUNG IN THERE, AND I WAS DISAPPOINTED’

One CMS parent, who spoke to The Observer on the condition of anonymity in case paperwork fell through and the family had to remain within the district, has moved his son to Pennsylvania, where football will begin Sept. 11.

“We were very excited up until the third of July that CMS was going to allow them to do what the state was already allowing kids to do,” he said. “We were very excited about the protocols the coaches had in place, the 25 max people, everything. We were 100% on board and thought that was safer than the training he was doing on his own and in groups. It was heartbreaking when we got the notice that CMS wouldn’t allow that.”

When CMS cross-country and volleyball teams begin voluntary skill workouts Sept. 14, Doran said the district will monitor how successful those sports are doing with safety protocols and will use that information to determine if it can safely bring other sports back.

The NCHSAA will allow cross-country and volleyball to begin official practices Nov. 4 with games starting Nov. 16. The next sports to begin practicing will be swimming (Nov. 23), basketball (Dec. 7), lacrosse and soccer (Jan. 11) and football (Feb. 8). Regular-season games, in each case, begin a few weeks after starting practices.

CMS students are learning remotely as the fall semester begins, and Doran said the district has still not decided if it will allow its teams to practice officially (“skill development” is classified differently from traditional team practices) or play games while in-person classrooms remain closed. But she said CMS would likely follow the NCHSAA rollout plan if it continues to bring teams back for workouts.

The parent moving his son to Pennsylvania said he couldn’t wait around for decisions he wasn’t sure would ever come. He signed over custody of his son, who is a college football prospect, to family members out of state and completed a move. He still has children in a CMS school.

“We hung in there, and I was disappointed,” he said. “Last week, when they pushed it off again indefinitely, and they wouldn’t put in a start date for football, we started to see the writing on the wall and our fears increased. We feel our child is better when he’s with the team. It’s safer and better for kids mentally, socially. They need that. We considered multiple options in multiple states, and we prayed to God we made the best decision that allows him to have class in school. He started practice Monday and plays a game in two weeks. But it all feels like a giant gut punch, if I’m being honest with you.”

FEW OPPORTUNITIES TO ADD TIME

Hopewell High football coach Jamelle Byrd was named his school’s coach of the year last season after the Titans won four games and ended a 34-game losing streak.

Hopewell also won its first conference game in five years last season and beat arch rival North Mecklenburg for the first time in the same span.

“We hit a lot of big milestones,” Byrd said.

A.J. Simpkins was a big part of that, throwing for 2,015 yards and 13 touchdowns. For his efforts, he was attracting attention from colleges in the ACC, Big 12, Mid-American and the Patriot League, according to his father. But without a firm offer, missing out on his junior summer was problematic for Simpkins, and the prospects of not having a senior year loomed even bigger.

“Quarterback,” Byrd said, “is the one position where they want to see you throw in person before they offer you, unless you’re in that elite class like Drake (Maye) or (former Sun Valley QB) Sam Howell (now a Heisman candidate at North Carolina). (Simpkins) and his folks did a combine-style video to send out, but eventually they felt that maybe getting an extra year would help. I told his dad that, ‘If you’re doing what you feel is best for your son, I’d be a bad coach to stand in the way of that.’ "

Hopewell will turn over the offense to senior D.J. Maultsby, who played receiver and defensive back last season. Byrd said he feels good about the future with Maultsby, and he feels good about Simpkins, 17, who is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.

“It was really hard” to leave Hopewell, A.J. Simpkins said. “I really felt like I belonged there and I had built a family there. I had to do what I had to do, and they understood it and they were very kind about it. I miss it a lot. I would love to play with those guys one last time, but I still feel I made the right decision.”

After just a few days, the quarterback said he’s beginning to feel at home at his new school in the mountains.

“It’s been great,” A.J. Simpkins said. “We’ve been going through two-a-day (practices). I’m really clicking with the guys up here, and I think we’re going to have a really good season.”

Brad Simpkins said A.J. and the family picked Christ School after developing a relationship with former Washington NFL quarterback and former N.C. Congressman Heath Shuler, whose son played 7-on-7 with A.J.

Shuler is now offensive coordinator at Christ School.

Simpkins said the family’s options were also limited in finding a private school that would allow A.J. to reclass.

“We got to know (the Shulers) as a family,” Brad Simpkins said. “There was also an appeal that he could reclass (at Christ School), and there are very few opportunities in life where you can add time.”

The plan, all along, had been for A.J. to get a scholarship, graduate in December and enroll in college in January 2021. But that was before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

Now the Simpkins family has a new plan.

“It’s hard,” Brad Simpkins said. “I’d rather have him around. But that’s part of being a parent. You don’t own them. You rent them awhile and you send them out. But what was attractive about Christ School, from a parent point-of-view, is that it’s a bit of a junior version of college. I told my wife it’s a lot like college with training wheels. You have curfew, bed check, chores and a level of responsibility you have in college, but there are people following up with you to make sure you do all that, that you don’t have in college.”

But sending his son away, he said, was still one of the hardest decisions the family has made.

“He went through stages,” Simpkins said of his son. “He made some very good friends at Hopewell. He had great teammates, and they made a lot of strides as a program. He loves his coaches. There’s so much about that school I could go on and on about that were wonderful things for him.

“He went from, ‘There’s no way I’m going anywhere,’ to ‘I might need to think about this,’ to ‘Oh my goodness, it really doesn’t look like we’re going to have a season.’ Through those stages, over time, he got to the point where he embraced the idea of leaving. But it was heartbreaking to go.”

PLAYERS TRANSFERRING

Area coaches report 22 players have changed schools due to the NCHSAA pushing back the start of high school football to February and/or the CMS decision to not allow teams to practice. Of those 22, 14 have left for S.C. or N.C. private schools, which plan to play in the fall.