The uncle of Derek Sparks, one of Southern California's top football prospects, removed the running back from Montclair Prep on Wednesday and said he will send him to Texas, where his high school career started three years ago.
Leland Sparks, a wide receiver and Derek's cousin, also has been pulled from Montclair Prep and is headed to Texas, said Jerome Sparks, their uncle. The move comes with the acquiescence of Montclair Prep Coach George Giannini and ends a stormy relationship between the private school in Van Nuys and Jerome Sparks.
The move was triggered when Giannini informed Leland Sparks just hours before Montclair Prep's season-opening game Thursday in Hawaii that the Southern Section had denied Sparks' request for a fifth year of eligibility. Two other Montclair Prep players were denied eligibility and banned from the game against Farrington. In Montclair Prep's 28-7 loss, Derek rushed for 63 yards in 16 carries.
Jerome blamed Montclair Prep for the eligibility ruling and pulled his nephews from school. Leland had appealed the Southern Section's ruling and been granted a hearing Wednesday, a date he now will break.
Jerome met the players at the airport Sunday when they returned from Hawaii and brought them to his apartment in Inglewood. Neither player attended school this week.
Jerome indicated earlier Wednesday that Derek would stay in California and transfer to Mater Dei, a parochial school in Orange County. Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson confirmed that the school had been contacted by Jerome and said he would accept Derek to his team, provided the transfer had met Southern Section eligibility rules.
But Jerome changed plans after Derek's mother June arrived from Texas on Wednesday afternoon and insisted that the boys return with her.
Derek, 17, was unavailable for comment Wednesday but stated all summer that he wished to continue at Montclair Prep despite ill feelings between his uncle and the school. Derek, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound senior, was selected the sophomore state Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports magazine at Banning after moving from Wharton High in southeast Texas. He enrolled at Montclair Prep in the spring of 1989 and was named the Times' Valley Back of the Year after he rushed for 1,944 yards.
When asked whether Derek wanted to leave Montclair Prep, Jerome said Wednesday, "Whatever we say, he's going to do."
Giannini encouraged the move despite his fondness for the players and the damage to his team the loss represents.
"I'm sorry to see them go and I'm sorry to see the boys go through this, but I told Jerome that if this is causing that many family problems, they should go to another school," he said.
Jerome has pushed for that move since last spring when Derek sought refuge in Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, claiming that he had been abandoned by Jerome--his legal guardian at the time. Derek became a foster child of Steve and Susie Goldbaum, a Granada Hills couple whose son John is a Montclair Prep senior linebacker. The Goldbaums have since relinquished their role as foster parents, although Derek continued to live with them until the team left for Hawaii last week.
Jerome and June Sparks objected to that living arrangement and urged Derek to leave the Goldbaums and move into an apartment with Leland despite the objections of both boys. Leland lived in Chatsworth with the Cole family, whose son Greg also plays for Montclair Prep. Derek has said that the pressure applied by his family rattled his nerves.
Regardless, Jerome claimed that Montclair Prep and its supporters had plotted to erode his influence over Derek in an attempt to gain control of his nephew. His simmering anger over his nephew's living situation erupted when the Southern Section denied Leland's request for an extra year of eligibility. Jerome failed to explain why he felt the school would work to thwart Leland's bid for eligibility.
However, the fact that Leland learned of his ineligibility just hours before kickoff further angered Jerome and turned Leland against Montclair Prep.
"What happened in Hawaii hurt me more than anything," Leland said. "Me standing on the sidelines, I can't tell you how that feels. They should have handled it better. What they did was very wrong."
Leland, who repeated the 11th grade at Montclair Prep, claims school officials repeatedly assured him that he would gain a fifth year of eligibility, a charge that Giannini denies. Whereas Leland said he only learned of the doubt surrounding his eligibility at the end of last semester, Giannini claims the school has discussed the problem with him and offered alternatives since last winter.
"I think we did give him fair appraisal starting at the beginning of last semester," Giannini said. "We talked to him about the possibility of going on to college or going to a (junior college). This was not sprung on him at the last minute. This is something that he's known about for months. I don't want to blame Leland. He never seemed sure what his uncle wanted him to do."
Giannini also sees no reason to blame Derek for his departure.
"It hurts our football team, but it's an unfortunate story and sad situation for the boys," he said. "A teen-ager's high school years are supposed to be the fondest memories for someone and it won't be that way for Derek. I wish he could have finished the year with us but we wish him well. . . ."