South Wake Homeschool Crusaders football coach Russ Zacek understands the stereotypes about home-schooled kids.
Among the negative associations are overprotective parents and anti-social kids. But for athletes who are home-schoolers, such characteristics fit with more with individual sports; not football.
It would seem concussion worries might discourage football participation, if parents were as overprotective as they’re made out to be. Well, this is Zacek’s ninth coaching the Crusaders. He has 18 players on this year’s varsity roster playing 11-man football.
“The type of people who homeschool their kids has broadened over the years,” Zacek said. “There are thousands of homeschool families in North Carolina. There are people like that (overprotective), but it’s becoming a much more diverse group of people. There is enough interest for a football team.”
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North Carolinians for Home Education, an organization formed in 1984, reports on its website there were 67,804 homeschool families in the state in the 2014-15 school year. That’s a dramatic jump from 1,046 in January 1988. The number grew after the N.C. General Assembly passed legislation in June 1988 that eased homeschool regulations.
Zacek, whose son Jackson is a senior running back for the Crusaders, planned to homeschool his children, but he understood the game playing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He was skeptical a homeschool football team would be a beneficial experience for Jackson once he was old enough for youth football.
That’s when Zacek met Earl Pendleton – who founded the Homeschool Football League 15 years ago – at a Greensboro homeschool information event. Pendleton homeschools his children, and he was motivated to establish the league when his oldest son, now 21, expressed interest in youth football.
The HFL has four levels – Mighty-Mites, Youth and JV along with the varsity. To participate, athletes pay a one-time $100 fee to join the league. The league subsequently pays with fundraisers for uniforms and equipment as the athletes advance to older levels.
Pendleton started with two teams in Raleigh, the Warriors and Saints. They eventually became the SW Homeschool Crusaders and the Northern Wake Saints. The two Triangle homeschool teams combined with the Greensboro Panthers to form a three-team HFL league.
The Crusaders play an eight-game regular-season schedule followed by the playoffs. The second- and third-place HFL teams face off with the winner advancing for a showdown for the title with the first-place team that received a bye.
Exposure for such a league is limited, but it wasn’t built for college recruiting exposure that has become so prevalent in modern-day high school sports. Zacek acknowledges some kids that began playing on HFL’s younger levels have left to play for public or private high school teams.
But Crusaders senior defensive lineman Sam Young has remained with the HFL despite his desire to play in college. He says it forced him to be proactive to draw interest, but he believes he will attract more offers on his own than he would while playing at a larger public or private school.
“Recruiting is easier at a bigger school, but I’ve contacted about 280 schools,” Young said. “I have offers from Division II and NAIA schools and I’m expecting more. I love playing homeschool football. It’s a character-oriented league. I think I’m a better person. And I think there is tough competition that we play against.”
Zacek added there have been examples of players leaving a public or private school to play for his team, although rare.
This year, Crusaders quarterback Abdul Shaat is finishing work toward a high school degree after playing at Cary High in 2014 as a senior. Such players need a homeschool background, and the HFL Board of Directors approved his eligibility since he didn’t turn 18 before Aug. 1.
Crusaders safety Eli Martin, a 5-10, 130-pounder, has no college ambitions, but he adds he doesn’t feel he has missed out on the bigger crowds and attention that come with “Friday Night Lights” at public school and private school games.
“I’ve grown close to the players on this team,” said Martin, who is in his sixth year with the program. “We have built a brotherhood. We challenge each other to work hard and balance school and football life. It takes time, but that challenges me to be diligent.”
Without the day-to-day contact of a coach at a school system team, Zacek keeps in touch with his players by sending emails about workouts, the playbook and writing a blog. The players call it their homework.
When the Crusaders opened their season with a 50-6 loss to Kestrel Heights, a small Durham charter school, Zacek’s players took a knee around him for a postgame talk. He told them to put the loss behind them and work hard to prepare for the next contest.
When he asked if anyone wanted to add a comment, Zaveon Fryar raised his hand.
“Everyone do their homework,” he said.
SW Homeschool Crusaders schedule
Aug. 28: Lost to Kestrel Heights 50-6
Sept. 11: at Village Christian
Sept. 19: at Greensboro Panthers (HFL) at Faulkner Elementary Field
Sept. 26: at Northern Wake Saints (HFL) at Trinity Academy Raleigh
Oct. 2: vs. Northern Wake Saints (HFL) at Middle Creek Park
Oct. 10: vs. Greensboro Panthers (HFL) at Trinity Academy Raleigh
Oct. 16: At Fayetteville Christian
Oct. 24: Playoffs, 2nd place vs. 3rd place
Oct. 31: Championship, 1st place vs. winner of playoff game.