How far would a high school football player go to make sure he had a senior season and that he had an opportunity to be recruited amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
While their friends and high school teammates were back home and unable to play football because the NCHSAA had postponed the season to the spring, the trio spent nearly three months living out of backpacks and doing schoolwork online during the week and playing for the Jireh Prep Warriors on the weekends. Jireh is primarily a postgraduate program, but did accept some high school underclassmen this fall who were trying to improve their chances of fulfilling their dream of playing college football.
"I just wanted the opportunity," Fletcher said.
Always playing road games
For Fletcher and Whisnant, playing for Jireh meant living out of a room at a Fairfield Inn by Marriott on Independence Boulevard in the eastern suburbs of Charlotte from Monday evening to Friday each week. They originally planned to rent an apartment on a three-month lease, but that arrangement fell through at the last minute. Whisnant’s father, Jonathan, stayed with them as chaperone while helping run the family business remotely with his wife, Vivian, and L.J.’s brother, 15-year-old Ridge, back home.
“I know they’re 17- or 18-year-old men,” Jonathan Whisnant said, “but it was just to make sure they didn’t have technical problems with school, make sure they had the food they needed, make sure they got to workouts and practices.”
At first, that food was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when they ate in the room, as well as fruit and other staples they brought from home, but “the fridge didn’t like working a lot of the time,” L.J. said.
Meals became mostly fast food. Buffalo Wild Wings across the street from the Fairfield Inn was a favorite, and CiCi’s Pizza and Showmars were also on the menu for multiple meals.
“Jake would always go to Popeye’s for lunch,” L.J. said.
“It tended to be what’s the least crappy thing we can get … ” Jonathan Whisnant said. “At least once a week I would say, 'Let’s go sit down somewhere and get something that has some green in it.' ”
The players and their Jireh teammates practiced Monday through Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. or 4 to 6 with a 45-minute walk-through on Friday afternoon. Then, the players would head home before returning to play games on Sundays, either at Mountain Island Charter School in Mount Holly or on the road. The weeks grew long.
“I don’t do work at a desk anymore,” L.J. Whisnant said by phone during his time away from home. “I do work sitting in my bed, Zoom call on an iPad next to me, do work on my laptop. At the end of the day with final period doing work, then having to go to practice immediately afterward it can be a little rough.”
“It has been a little bit difficult,” Fletcher added, “especially the first couple of weeks when (the technology) wasn’t working. You had trouble getting assignments in, but it’s been OK. It’s just something you have to get used to and tackle head on.”
When they weren't hitting the books or hitting teammates in practice they were playing video games on the Nintendo Switch and PS4 that L.J. Whisnant brought from home.
East Forsyth teammate Jordan Timmons was part of the group staying at the motel and playing for Jireh for part of the season, but he returned home in October to participate in a few 7-on-7 events with the Eagles.
For Flowers, playing for Jireh meant staying with an aunt, Kim Smith, in Charlotte while taking East Forsyth courses online and commuting to practice at the Sportsplex in Matthews.
“Her letting me stay at the house and take online classes from there was like being at home,” he said. “I take my classes and when I’m done I go to practice, but it’s school first.”
Jonathan Whisnant said he was proud of the way the players handled the challenges of being away from home for part of their senior year of high school.
“They’ve put a lot of dedication into this. … It’s become a drag sometimes,” he said. “But they’ve kept their grades up and not missed anything.”
The Forsyth County trio’s dedication and maturity was not lost on their high school coaches. East Forsyth’s Todd Willert and Glenn’s Antwon Stevenson believe that what the players have demonstrated while being away from home for the first time will resonate with college coaches.
“Colleges can see that these kids have sacrificed,” Willert said. “They’ve stayed down there with family on weekdays, done their courses online and then they go to practice. It’s like college. I’m really proud of those guys.”
Stevenson said Flowers “gained a greater appreciation for what’s expected on the next level, with him having aspirations to play on Saturday. He has a lot better insight on how things go.”
What is Jireh Prep?
Things haven’t always gone smoothly for Jireh Prep. The Charlotte Observer reported that Jireh Preparatory Academy and its athletics program, Jireh Prep Athletics Inc., filed for Chapter 7 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court Western District of North Carolina in July 2017, just months after a class-action suit alleged Jireh did not follow through on promises made to help students earn college athletics scholarships.
On Jireh Prep’s website, a blog post claims that “the legal entities were forced to file bankruptcy due to mounting litigation fees” and shows a final decree that the bankruptcies were closed on June 19, 2019, and that there was no legal finding of fraud. School officials declined to comment for this story.
The Forsyth County players and their families, as well as their high school coaches, did their due diligence after Timmons’ father broached the idea. Jonathan Whisnant said he saw that a number of current players at FBS-level schools had played for Jireh Prep and were satisfied with their experiences.
“They worked really hard and they are still working hard,” Jonathan Whisnant said of Coach Ryan Williams and Jeff Rabon, Jireh’s athletics and academics director. “Ryan reached out to me (Nov. 18) to let me know there was a particular coach was watching L.J.’s film that he sent. ... I feel like they did a good job and if you don’t have expectations of your kid making it to Clemson or Alabama or Ohio State, if you realize it is what it is and you’re realistic, it was a great thing for him.”
But the players and their families knew playing for Jireh Prep would come with risk and cost. The Whisnants spent about $500 a week on lodging, meals, gas and other expenses while L.J. was playing there.
Fletcher and Whisnant each also paid $1,000 and Flowers paid $2,000 to play football, but they did not take any courses connected with Jireh’s postgraduate program and remained enrolled at their respective high schools. That allowed them to maintain their eligibility to play in an N.C. High School Athletic Association season that is scheduled to begin Feb. 26, the association’s James Alverson confirmed, because without classes Jireh Prep is considered a club program much like AAU basketball.
Jireh is geared primarily toward postgraduate students looking to improve their standardized test scores or core grade-point average or to those looking for more recruiting exposure after high school. Since neither school officials nor Williams would respond to questions, it is not known how many high school seniors besides Fletcher, Flowers, Whisnant and Timmons played on this year’s team, which finished 8-0.
While Williams may be reluctant to talk about his players, Fletcher, Flowers and Whisnant said they had a positive experience playing for him and for Jireh Prep.
“If you have the chance to do it, the opportunity, I would do it because you’re going to grow,” Flowers said. “Coach Williams is an ideal coach because of the way he pushes you. He’s going to get the best out of you.”
Most of the Warriors’ opponents were postgraduate students, so Fletcher, Whisnant and Flowers were usually playing with and going up against older players and were using college rules, most notably 15-minute quarters instead of 12.
The Forsyth County players joined Jireh Prep for its second game, which was Sept. 6 against Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, a postgraduate program that has produced NFL players such as Eddie George, Vinny Testaverde and Michael Thomas. It was a crash course in football at a higher level than high school.
“In the span of a week,” L.J. Whisnant said, “we were playing with a new team, had to learn an entirely different scheme and play with a bunch of people we’d never met and had to go against Fork Union, which is probably one of the toughest games of the season.”
But the Warriors won 28-21 with Fletcher and Whisnant playing on the offensive line, Flowers playing safety and linebacker and Timmons filling various roles as an athlete. Then the group had to settle in amidst the unfamiliar surroundings.
“It was kind of weird at first,” Whisnant said. “We didn’t know too many people and everybody was kind of quiet at the beginning. It was this silence like, we know what we have to do, but as time went on we talked to more people. They started coming out more, we started coming out a bit more and talking during practice. We started to get that connection.”
It wasn’t the same as playing high school ball, though.
“I miss my family, but I really miss the guys,” Fletcher said by phone during his time away. “I miss them so much, especially Coach Willert, Coach (Doug) Lakis and Coach (Ron) Horton, all of those guys. I’ve put in a lot of time and energy the last four years with those guys and coaches. This year, being a senior, means the most for me, so I’m missing those guys and those experiences while they’re working. … It’s huge. You’re not going to get that time back.”
Willert and Stevenson missed their players, too, as their respective teams went through twice-weekly offseason workouts. But they understood why all three were doing it and were confident they would return to high school football in 2021.
“A lot of coaches don’t want to share their athletes,” Willert said, “but when I talked to their parents it came down to what’s best for the kids. To this day we still don’t know if we’re going to play football. This might be the last time these kids play football.”
Stevenson said he expects to get a mentally tougher player back.
“I think it was humbling in the sense that he’s coming from a situation where he’s one of the top guys on the team (at Glenn) and going into a situation where nobody knows you and nobody is going to give you anything,” the Bobcats’ coach said. “You have to earn all playing time.”
‘Taking advantage of a situation’
All three hope that playing for Jireh Prep will earn them playing time at the collegiate level. That’s ultimately why they made the nearly 2-hour drive from Kernersville to Matthews each week.
“It’s one of those things where you’re taking advantage of a situation where you get to play ball, a sport that you love,” Stevenson said, “and as far as recruitment you allow college coaches to put their eyes on you” at a time when North Carolina’s public schools were not playing.
Willert said the additional exposure and development was particularly important for Fletcher and Whisnant because they are offensive linemen, Fletcher a 6-foot-1, 270-pound center and Whisnant a 6-3, 280 guard/tackle. “It’s tough for O-linemen and D-linemen because you can’t go do 7-on-7 like a lot of our guys do,” he added.
For Flowers, it wasn’t just an opportunity to play football when most of his peers were not. It was a chance to gain experience on the defensive side of the ball, where he feels his future lies.
“It was definitely a change playing safety and dropping back in coverage more,” said the 6-foot, 205-pound athlete. “That was new to me, but they moved me down to outside linebacker toward the end of the season. Me being able to rush and sometimes drop in coverage was cool.”
If Flowers does get to play for Stevenson in the spring as he hopes, the senior will play “anywhere he needs me. I’m going to be on both sides of the ball, in the slot, in the backfield at running back and at linebacker on defense.”
Are Willert and Stevenson worried that their players will come back with bad habits?
“The O-line guys have been in the program for three years and they understand,” Willert said. “Their offense is a lot like ours, a spread offense. Some of the protections are different, but I’m not worried at all.”
Glenn’s Stevenson said he believes Flowers, as well as the East Forsyth players, will be “be coming back to your peers and playing against them and have a little more confidence. That’s what competitive sports is all about. Half the battle is just being confident in yourself.”
The end game
Glenn and East Forsyth will head into the 2021 spring season confident, even though both are losing some key players who will graduate in December and enroll in college in January. Glenn finished 9-5 and reached the third round of the NCHSAA Class 4-A playoffs, and East Forsyth went 13-2 and won its second consecutive Class 4-A state championship.
All three players who spent the fall season at Jireh Prep knew a major injury could have prevented them from building on that success, but they and their families accepted the risk.
“It never leaves your mind,” Jonathan Whisnant said. “Spring ball, you could get injured. Going to a summer camp, you can get injured. … You weigh the risk with the reward.”
Fletcher echoed those sentiments, saying, “Some of the guys who are graduating early were talking and said, ‘You never know when your last snap is going to be, whether it’s in the spring or the fall.’ You just have to play your heart out and give it everything you’ve got and leave everything on the field.”
“You go into every game not playing to get hurt, playing full speed,” Flowers added. “That doesn’t cross my mind. I’m just flying around.”
Now the players will find out if the additional development and exposure will help them reach their goal of playing college football.
“We believe it’s going to be beneficial,” Jonathan Whisnant said. “We do have film and they’re playing against college-age guys instead of high schoolers.”
But it goes beyond football, Fletcher said. He believes the experience will help him in every aspect of his life.
“Coming in here and finding my path and sticking to it was really important,” he said. “The grind has been real. It’s been way different, how I work with adversity and developing my leadership skills. A lot of things have been sharpened and just helped me be a better person.”
Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034, and follow @JoeSireraNR on Twitter.
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