by Marcus Harrison Green
As the investigation continues into allegations Garfield High School possibly committed football recruiting violations, a close friend of the team’s beleaguered head coach is coming forward to speak up and offer additional details on the matter.
“The story makes no sense. Why would a head coach risk his career to recruit a high school senior from Texas that had never played football before?” questions Dominique Davis, in reference to his friend, Garfield High Football coach Joey Thomas.
As first reported in the Seattle Times, and followed up on by KIRO News, Thomas has been accused of illegally recruiting Will Sanders last August, a then incoming senior from Beaumont, TX for the express purpose of playing football for the Bulldogs. Sander, 19, claims he was promised scholarship opportunities and better life prospects in exchange for on-field performance, and then received a raw deal after Garfield’s season ended last November.
In separate interviews, Sanders told both news outlets that he was connected with Thomas via John McKinney, whose son Cameron played football for Thomas’ predecessor Derek Sparks at Garfield.
Speaking to My Northwest, McKinney credited Sparks’s coaching tenure with helping his once wayward son Cameron turn his life around saying, “Garfield showed him so much love and encouragement he just jumped on it and never looked back.”
Excelling on the field, the younger McKinney ended up receiving a football scholarship to the University of North Dakota.
It’s Sparks, who founded House of Champions a transitional housing and college prep center for homeless athletes, who Davis says already set a precedent of helping troubled, wayward youth via Garfield’s football program.
According to the organization’s Facebook page, House of Champions, headquartered in South Seattle, originally sprouted from Garfield High. Leading Davis to say he thinks it’s odd that the hammer appears to be coming down on Thomas, who Davis found in good spirits following a recent conversation the two had, though the two did not speak about the investigation.
“Sparks was already helping homeless youth from Texas but now their investigating Joey for the same thing?” asks a puzzled Davis.
Davis references the Times story that reports Garfield’s then-Athletic Director Ed Haskins, temporarily authorized Sanders to play football despite the teen’s poor grades at his Texas high school. The same article also reported that Garfield Principal Ted Howard approved Sander’s status as a homeless youth, which means a student can participate in sports despite poor academics.
Davis is adamant that Sparks, Haskins and Howard have done much to help young people of color in the South Seattle community.
Sparks has not yet responded to the Emerald’s request for comment, and both Haskins and Howard are not commenting until after the investigation’s conclusion.
Davis and Thomas first bonded as football coaches, Davis coaching little league and Thomas the former NFL cornerback fresh off retirement, coached at Ballard High School.
Davis, who runs gang-prevention group Community Passageways, said he would often encourage his soon-to-be high school aged players living near Ballard to play at the next level for Thomas, whom he respected for steering players to success off the gridiron.
“He would help kids regardless of if they wanted to play for him or not, that didn’t matter at all. The man was about improving the life of kids out here, period,” says Davis, when asked if Thomas showed bias against any of Dominique’s former little leaguers who choose not to play football upon reaching house school.
For Davis, this is the only explanation for why Thomas would have been interested in Sanders, who did not previously play high school football prior to joining Garfield last August.
“I just don’t see an ex-NFL player looking at hearing about someone playing basketball in another state and saying I absolutely have to recruit that guy,” says Davis, who believes that Thomas was attempting to help a wayward youth.
A third string running back, Sanders backed up highly-recruited Ramaire Hampton and Tre’Shaun Harrison, playing primarily in mop up duty.
As a senior, barring extenuating circumstances, Sanders would not have been eligible to play another year of football.
And while Davis refrains from speaking ill of Sanders or speculating on the young man’s past, a scan of the Instagram account of a young man named David Manuel, going by the username Lil_Nino15, reveals a photo tagged “Squad Life or No Life” and identifies Sanders as Manuel’s cousin.
The two appear to be throwing up gang signs. The gestures are prominent in additional photos hash tagged B.T.D. Gang, and taken while Sanders was living in Beaumont.
“From what I know, the kid had some things going on in his life and he really needed a change of environment,” adds Davis.
John McKinney, the man responsible for first putting Sanders in contact with the school, shared the same assessment with on the Ron and Don Show.
The Emerald spoke to some of Sanders former teammates at Garfield, under the condition their names would not be printed, who said Sanders would often brag about knocking people out, and being a gang enforcer during his time in Beaumont.
Davis said something missing from the discussion around the Garfield investigation is who exactly is leaking information to the media, as publications have cited anonymous tips. He feels a concerned parent would’ve taken their complaints directly to the school district and finds it interesting that Garfield is a constant target of scrutiny but not other high school sports powerhouses.
Thomas, who is not speaking to media during the investigation, led Garfield to an 8 and 2 record last year before losing to Lynnwood in the first round of the Metro League Playoffs.
Findings from the investigation, being conducted by an outside investigator hired by the Seattle Public School District, were originally delayed but are expected soon.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current Scholar-in-Residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image is a Wiki Commons photo