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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.

September 24, 2004|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.

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