REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — David Sills IV sits at a desk in the den of his weekend home here, on a country club just a few miles from the beach. A table off to the side holds a laptop decorated with logos from several colleges, most prominently West Virginia, where his son, David V, is a freshman quarterback. He drinks out of a cup from Mississippi State, where his adopted son, Jahmere Irvin-Sills, now plays football.
Jahmere was a child at a youth football game when he learned his mother had been killed. He went into the witness protection program and spent a year in North Carolina before returning to live with his grandfather in Delaware. Soon after he returned, his brother was killed in a house fire. The day his family continued to break apart, he started to form a new one when he met David Sills IV at a football practice facility nearby.
Years later, Jahmere won a skills combine, and he returned that night to learn that his grandfather had passed away. No good news came without a little bad.
Amid unbearable tragedy, Jahmere moved in with the Sills family, who later adopted him. Eventually, he changed his last name to Irvin-Sills and earned his scholarship to Mississippi State.
Kids like Jahmere come around often in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, near Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Maryland. Sills founded the school in 2012 as an all-online school intended initially for only football players.
There are no school plays, chess clubs or marching bands at Eastern Christian. The school exists with one goal — get kids off the streets and into college for free, using football.
The model has been overwhelmingly successful so far — Sills estimates that in a graduating class of 15, on average 13 will go to college for free — and it stretches to Ann Arbor, too. Michigan sophomore football players Freddy Canteen and Brandon Watson once called the troubled streets of Wilmington home, but they made it out.
Some kids from Wilmington struggle to find themselves. So they find Sills, they find coach Dwayne Thomas, they find Eastern Christian and they find other kids — role models like Canteen and Watson.
On a Saturday afternoon in late July, only Sills is at his Rehoboth Beach home for most of the afternoon. It’s a “quiet day,” he says, which is unusual. The next day, his son and Canteen would be there after training together. Both his daughters would be there, too, as would Jahmere, and likely a bunch of their friends. The Sills have a dormitory-style room above the garage that can sleep 16. Sills refers to all of the kids as his own, and the family has been hosting them since before they founded Eastern Christian.
“I’m happy to be able to host them as much as I can,” Sills said. “I love the kids. I think they’re all good for each other.”
The kids agree. Watson said he used to drive a teammate to school and buy him lunch, hoping that teammate can now do the same for someone else. Canteen, while home from Michigan for a week this summer, went back to Eastern Christian and rode the bus with the team up to Camden, New Jersey, to watch their 7-on-7 workout.
Together, they serve as role models for the next group of kids looking to make something of themselves.
And so after growing up with little reason to believe in their future, they end up with little reason not to.
The players at Eastern Christian come from all over, but most are from nearby New Castle County in Delaware, especially Wilmington. Wilmington is the largest city in Delaware, with 71,525 people as of 2013. It is also one of the most dangerous small cities in the country.
A Newsweek piece last December labeled it Murder Town, USA. According to the Wall Street Journal, last year’s 28 murders fell one shy of the record set in 2010 and 2011. In 2013, the per-capita rate was more than four times the national average.
“As long as I’m around, we’re going to always be the least, the last and the left out,” Thomas said. “Because that’s what I was. Kids that need the most get the most.”
These kids come from a wide range of family situations. Some have single parents, some have parents in jail, some have no parents. One, Angelo Blaxon, came from another high school in northern Delaware and grew up with his sister. His mother was a drug addict. His sister, though she was a “very strong, valued individual,” as Sills said, struggled to feed and raise Angelo, as he was 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. He started playing football for Thomas at nearby Red Lion Christian Academy, and moved in with another family on the team.
He earned a full scholarship to Auburn, and his new family and Blaxon’s sister all came together last spring to see Blaxon drafted by the Tennessee Titans.
“This is a kid who could have been walking the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, having drive-by shootings or doing drugs or whatever the case may be,” Sills said. “We have a lot of those situations.”
Some kids have fathers in jail for murder. Another’s father hung himself in prison.
“It’s a struggle,” Sills said, “and the school really is a ministry.”
Religion is a top priority at Eastern Christian (a job advertisement on the school’s website requires applicants to be born-again Christians). On the sign in front of the school is a Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 9:24, which says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
At Eastern Christian, they know they have to run faster to get that prize. But they succeed at an incredibly high rate. Sills estimated that out of 15 in a graduating class, 13 will play football in college for free or virtually free.
And they come a long way from where they started in order to do it. Some kids come to school and don’t have any lunch, so the Sills family used to send extra food to school.
“Over the course of time, we get the kids that have been forgotten,” Sills said. “It just always makes you cry when you see some of the situations that some of these kids are in.”
As for Canteen and Watson, they know they’re relatively lucky. There’s a gamut of family situations at Eastern Christian, and Canteen and Watson were at the upper end of that spectrum, despite growing up in or just outside Wilmington. Their parents made sure they had everything they needed.
But the two players could always have gotten into trouble. They were right next to what Watson calls “the worst part” of town.
They know the future they have in front of them was never inevitable. They agree they wouldn’t be here if not for Eastern Christian, if not for their hard work, even if the ball had bounced differently. The world they left behind is a constant reminder.
“I knew kids, of course I knew kids,” Canteen said. “I had friends I grew up with that chose the wrong path. You’ve got to let those go.”
For both, the route was simple. They went to school from around 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. on weekdays. Then came football practice, weight training, walkthroughs and extra workouts. On fall weekends, they’d travel to games all over the East coast. Then came more offseason training, and then camps to gain exposure to college coaches.
Canteen and Watson cleared every hurdle.
“They proved to me who they were through handling that ethic,” Thomas said. “Never complained. Them two? Never heard a peep out of them. Ever.”
Thomas coached Canteen and Watson starting in middle school, before Eastern Christian even existed. They worked year-round to get to this level. Watson became an interception machine, always finding himself around the ball when it was thrown. Though he hasn’t seen the field much at Michigan, he showed a glimpse of his capabilities with an interception in the Spring Game.
Canteen, meanwhile, worked with David Sills V relentlessly to develop chemistry to match his blazing speed. When Sills threw a back-shoulder fade, Canteen would know, and he’d adjust. When Canteen switched his route before the snap, Sills would know, and he’d adjust. Canteen has also played sparingly in the past year (in part due to a shoulder injury in camp), but the Michigan coaches have started using him on offense and defense, presumably to try to utilize his speed.
“Those are two kids that get it,” Thomas said. “It’s not recreation for them. This is something that’s very, very special and near and dear to them. They both have those dispositions, which affords them the opportunity to challenge themselves.
“At the end of the day, we live in a microwave society. Everything’s got to be done in 30 seconds. Most young people are focused on other things other than training, academics. … Because they are driven individuals, they didn’t mind the time they had to commit to this program in order to obtain or reach their goals.”
Back in high school, that work paid off when former Michigan assistant coach Curt Mallory noticed the two at a Michigan summer camp and recruited them.
Those camps ran well into the summer, and then it was time for training camp to prepare for another season. Thomas and the staff at Eastern Christian didn’t leave time for anything else.
“I never really went to any parties or anything,” Watson said. “I wanted to, but I was too tired. I had stuff going on the next day. There is no other choice.”
It hasn’t taken long for the players and staff at Eastern Christian to become confident in their model, to keep pursuing bright futures in spite of a bleak past. The school started in 2012, when nearby Red Lion Christian was sold to another church that de-emphasized athletics.
At that point, the football players (including Canteen, Watson and Sills), parents and coaches at Red Lion gathered and decided they had three options: They could each go their separate ways, staying at Red Lion or transferring to a new school of their choice. They could all transfer to the same school en masse. Or they could create a new school.
Of course, the latter of those three options presented the most challenges. They would need teachers, classes, approval from the state and a host of new administrative measures.
But that’s what they voted to do, and Eastern Christian was born.
“It was challenging, but it wasn’t like climbing Mount Everest,” Sills said. “It was challenging, I’ll say that. It was a lot of work.”
Sills’ son still had three years of high-school eligibility left, and he had been offered a scholarship to Southern California at age 13. If the elder Sills had only his own son’s football interests in mind, he could have sent him anywhere, most likely Oaks Christian in California, where he could work with private quarterback coach Steve Clarkson.
But Sills had his other sons, his adopted sons, to worry about too. To create a new school, take in underprivileged kids and travel around the country playing high-school powerhouses required belief — belief in the staff, belief in the players and belief in the system.
If Sills, Thomas and the rest of the foundation of Eastern Christian didn’t have that belief, Eastern Christian wouldn’t exist. And Freddy Canteen and Brandon Watson don’t know where they’d be right now.
The new program at Eastern Christian needed a strong leader as coach, so when Sills founded the school, he brought Thomas with him. After growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, Thomas played at Northern Arizona and then coached at Montclair State, Tennessee State and Delaware State.
A strong personality, Thomas is very philosophical and exceedingly confident. He says North Jersey is becoming a recruiting hotbed, so he says he’ll take his team up to beat — not just play — some teams in North Jersey. Last week, they did, defeating Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers’ alma mater, Paramus Catholic, 42-20.
“There’s a cockiness here, where I think we can develop people wherever,” Thomas says.
Just before Eastern Christian started, Thomas took a visit to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Eastern Christian has drawn comparisons to IMG because of its strong focus on athletics and the criticism that it is too intense in that area. In fact, the schools will play each other in football next month.
During Thomas’ visit, the coach walked around the facility, had lunch and met with then-IMG coach Chris Weinke. At the end of the visit, Thomas went to Weinke’s office and saw several of his players’ names on the wall. Weinke wanted them to transfer to IMG; Thomas said absolutely not. He offered Thomas a job; Thomas said absolutely not.
Weinke said if Thomas left Red Lion, he would never surface again.
“I said, ‘Yeah, we will,’ ” Thomas said. “You can drop me off in Beijing, China, and in two years Nick Saban is gonna have (Chinese players) on Alabama’s team. Because we have a formula.”
That was the end of that conversation.
Thomas is his serious about his coaching job. He believes he was called to do this. Years ago, his father told him the Confucius saying that when you choose a job you love, you never work a day in your life.
He likes the intimacy of Eastern Christian’s program, where he gets to urge kids to realize their full potential. College coaches ask him when he’s going to return to college. He tells them he never will.
“At the end of the day, when we win, I feel like we just beat Alabama,” Thomas said. “And when a kid gets a scholarship, it seems like we just won the national championship. I’ve had years where we get 14 kids scholarships, so I won the national championship 14 times that year.”
Thomas came to Eastern Christian, taking the leap of faith along with everyone else, to keep teaching lessons to the kids.
“You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some and some are unfortunately going to get rained out,” he said. “But when there’s a lesson learned, you really don’t lose anything. That’s where the confidence comes from.”
Eastern Christian’s building sits in the bottom of an industrial park off Maryland’s Route 272. It shares the park with a closed sandwich shop, a fencing academy and a cork production plant, among other things. One has to pass a precious-metal factory and an agricultural supplier to see the first sign of a high school, a lone tackling sled in the middle of a field of knee-high grass.
But inside the building at the bottom of the hill, it looks like a high school. The lobby is furnished, with flowers lining the front wall. Photos, trophies and other mementos decorate another wall. A poster reads, “We Don’t Keep Calm. It’s Football Season.” Another lists four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer and Football. Still another, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up.”
The staff hangs flags on the wall from all the schools former players have attended. Last year’s schools haven’t even gone up yet, and they already need a new wall.
“Good bunch of guys, man,” Thomas says. “We’re going to get 15 kids to college every year. That’s our contribution to society.”
On the front desk, another stack of mail from interested schools has arrived for players. Thomas begins to sort through the schools: Yale, Army, Liberty, Maryland, Rutgers, UCLA, Michigan State, Kentucky.
He reaches the bottom of the stack, then sets it down, pauses and says, “We’ll be all right.”