Latest Twist in Garfield Inquest Calls Recruiting Story Into Question

by Marcus Harrison Green

In the latest twist in the ongoing investigation into Garfield High School’s alleged football recruiting violations, John McKinney speaks out to “set the record straight”.

McKinney is the man responsible for enrolling the former student at the center of the controversy with Seattle Schools.

The crux of the issue is whether or not 19-year-old Will Sanders was recruited to Garfield High from Beaumont, TX  by the school’s head football Coach Joey Thomas to play on promises of lavish life prospects in exchange for athletic performance, or whether Sanders arrived in Seattle of his own volition searching for better life circumstances than his hometown offered.

In an exclusive interview with the Emerald, McKinney, who helped bring Sanders to Seattle in August of 2016, says the young man’s claims that Garfield Head Football Coach Joey Thomas improperly recruited him from Beaumont, TX are unequivocally false. McKinney also alleges that Garfield’s previous head football coach Derek Sparks might have some level of involvement with Thomas’ plight.

Cognizant of his words being dismissed as a conspiracy theory, McKinney provided text exchanges between him and Sparks, along with phone records showing calls between the two, and a witness to the phone conversations.

McKinney says Sparks, who resigned as Garfield’s head coach in March of 2016, initially texted him in a seemingly joyful mood on the day the Seattle Times broke the story that Garfield High School was under investigation. The text included a link to the article and the quote: Can I have your autograph?

Sparks next contact with McKinney was less jovial, after the Emerald published a follow up story May 9 on the Garfield investigation. First calling, Sparks left an angry voice mail after McKinney was unable to pick up the phone.

Sparks then texted: “This is why I said don’t mention my name” with a link to the Emerald’s story.

McKinney responded that he did not “give any interviews” and that he would call Sparks back.

Texts 1

Relating the ensuing conversation, McKinney says Sparks “threatened” him by saying “We’re gonna have a problem” And to “not say shit”, because “his people” within the Seattle Public School District “said that it looked like Joey might get off.”

McKinney provided several additional texts, and the Emerald has reached out to Sparks multiple times for comment on his version of events but has yet to receive a response. The Emerald also spoke with an individual who was present during Sparks and McKinney’s conversation that corroborated McKinney’s version of the discussion.

For McKinney, the conversation raised several questions. One was why Sparks seemed to react so irately when the Emerald’s article only briefly mentioned him, and he wasn’t currently at center of any investigation.  He also questioned Spark’s “connection” within the Seattle Public Schools; as only someone close enough to the internal workings of the investigation would be aware of its status.

“It just seemed crazy that he would call me all panicky. My thing is, if you didn’t do anything wrong, than what do you have to worry about? No one was investigating him,” says McKinney.

The Emerald reached out to the Seattle Public School District about the developing investigation, and received this statement from the district’s office of public affairs:

“We take the allegations regarding the Garfield football program very seriously. The issues are being thoroughly investigated by an outside investigator. We are committed to understanding if WIAA violations occurred and, if so, taking steps to address them. The district is committed to equity, to fairness, and to following the rules. The well-being and safety of our students is a top priority.”

The Emerald also contacted individual school board members for responses with all saying they could not comment on an ongoing investigation.


McKinney and Sparks have history. Sparks coached McKinney’s youngest son Cameron at Garfield High School, helping him land a scholarship at the University of North Dakota after Cameron excelled on and off the field.

The elder McKinney credits the change of scenery Cameron found in Seattle, after growing up in Beaumont, TX where he experienced a rough stretch, including the murder of Cam’s brother Chad Slaughter, as a turning point in his son’s life.

News of Cameron’s success soon traveled through Beaumont, according to McKinney. This is where Will Sanders entered the picture.

McKinney says he knew Sanders’ father, and was asked by a mutual friend to help Sanders get out of Beaumont in hopes of the teen undergoing a similar life transformation.

“No one seemed to want to take a chance on him, but no one had reached for me when I was his age and I wish they had,” says McKinney, who is forthright about his past drug addiction prior to settling in Seattle and straightening out his life.

His adopted city had worked wonders for him and his son, and he thought the same would be true of Sanders.  He flew Sanders up here and enrolled him at Garfield.

“I knew Will’s past but I was willing to leave it there. I told him, ‘if you play sports then you play sports’ but you’re here to get your life together. He had never even met Joey Thomas before coming to Garfield,” says McKinney.

He adds that the only initial conversations he had with Thomas in regards to Sanders related to the then 18-year-olds need for an environment change from Beaumont.

He also says that he was the one who received a video of Sanders playing basketball – not Thomas, as has been reported elsewhere.

“Why in the hell would someone recruit a kid who never played football, and only ever played basketball in the park?” asks McKinney.

Sanders initially arrived in Seattle in late August, but then returned to Beaumont in late November.

McKinney echoed statements he previously said on the Ron and Don Show weeks ago, that he did not force Sanders to go home.

McKinney claims he dropped Sanders off at the airport in November, not expecting to see him again, which is why he was surprised to hear Sanders’ account of events first published in the Seattle Times, and then on KIRO news.

While McKinney went out of his way to not speak ill of Sanders, viewing him as a young man being used by older adults, he says that the narrative making the rounds through mainstream media is inaccurate.

The adopted Seattlite says he thinks someone is coaching Sanders to recite his tale to the news media. And while he wouldn’t go on the record as to whom that person might be, he says it seems awfully peculiar that Sparks would respond to him with such fury.

“Sparks told me that [Seattle Times] reporter Claudia Rowe told him I was a credible witness, and that my testimony might set Joey free,” says McKinney.

He adds that it seemed strange that Sparks, who had not been mentioned in Rowe’s original story would be talking to a Times reporter about the case at all.

When reached for comment, Rowe says that it is “a 100 percent fact” that she has never spoken with Derek Sparks. Rowe says that the only time she was able to get a hold of Sparks is over Facebook, when he asked her to email him questions.

McKinney also says he didn’t speak to attorney Phil Thompson of law firm Perkins Coie in Bellevue, the investigator hired by Seattle Public Schools on the Garfield case, because he was afraid the words of a black man “would be twisted.”

“Sparks kept saying for me to not say anything because reporters kept reaching out to him. For me, this was about helping a kid. I don’t know what all this other stuff is about.”

McKinney says that it’s still perplexing how Sparks appeared aware of details pertaining to the investigation that were not publicly available, including Thomas’s status, and that McKinney himself was viewed as a credible witness.

The only people with knowledge of the case’s progression would be the Seattle School District’s legal counsel, the investigator, and potentially members of the school board who were kept abreast of the situation.

Thompson, the case’s investigator, is away from Perkins Coie until May 29, but an assistant via email said that Thompson would respond to the Emerald’s request for comment about the implication of any leaks of the investigation to third parties by those being updated on the case.

School board members are supposed to be prohibited from publicly or privately sharing information on the case, as is Thomas who could not speak about the investigation when contacted.

On Monday, King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson contacted the Emerald, saying he met with Seattle Public School District Superintendent Larry Nyland last week to discuss why the investigation into Thomas was continuing. Nyland also confirmed the meeting.

Hankerson says he presented photos of texts and other evidence to buttress the claim that Thomas was not involved with a recruiting scandal. 

He would not comment on where he received the items from, but the photos he sent to the Emerald match up with the image of the text exchange between Sparks and McKinney.

Hankerson also shared that he told Nyland the names of the individuals he’s ascertained are leaking information to the press about Thomas’ case, but declined to publicly disclose them at this time.

The Garfield investigation is still in process.  

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 found on Twitter @mhgreen3000

8 thoughts on “Latest Twist in Garfield Inquest Calls Recruiting Story Into Question”

  1. There’s more to this than the surface story where they are using a young man while trying to destroy an epic movement, coach reputations and players hopes and dreams. Many are upset with the stance the team took. They had a courageous coaching staff that listened to their concerns and helped them take a peaceful yet very powerful, nationally powerful step toward a better future. This very deliberate attack is meant to quiet our young man and “keep them in their place” at the bottom of the barrel in society. Don’t be fooled this has nothing to do with recruiting (offering a better education) of a young man who in the 11th hour realized he squandered his opportunities to receive a second chance to better himself. He’s simply a pawn in a much larger chess game.

    This story hit an all-time low with John McKinney taking shots at a coach that help saved his son. C’mon man are we really listening to a crackhead drug abuser that abandoned his son when he was a youth only to resurface when his son became a star athlete. Marcus Green we all know that you are friends with Joey Thomas and he is using you to divert attention from his indiscretions. Marcus you can do better! Oh and try using spell check.

    1. Wow CRACKHEAD tales? Victim blame much? You sound like the Mayor, Chris… we shouldn’t listen to anyone we don’t agree with right?

      Marcus was very clear that he was an alum, and it doesn’t change the facts or excellent reporting done on this story. It sounds like you are friends with Sparks and more concerned with defending someone who did something stupid.

      Star athletes aren’t 3rd string running backs.

      Great reporting depends on relationships- and you clearly don’t have very many good ones if you are running around discrediting anyone with an imperfect past. Don’t throw rocks, because everyone lives in a glass house.

  3. After thinking about this article on a larger scale. I have a few questions and concerns for the district. Like how and why were there individuals outside the SPS district aware of vital confidential details of the investigation? Why is the school district allowing these individuals to paint a picture with the public that could be compromising to the validity of the investigation? How do we as parents hold the school district responsible for botching this investigation? Are you willing to email the school district in support of the Garfield Football Program receiving a fair investigation into these allegations? Is the outcome of the investigation as important to you as it is the rest of our children and their coaches? If so please hold SPS and the investigation team accountable for their inappropriate public leaks in an ongoing investigation. This investigation has so many flaws that is just needs to be dropped. I stand with our children and the Garfield Football coaching staff. Where do you stand? More important where does Seattle Public School District stand?


    John McKinney and Garfield Football Coach, Thomas Bogan went on Kiro Radio’s Ron and Don show to speak on Joey Thomas behalf. When listening to the show, McKinney thanked Coach Sparks and Seattle for helping his son. However, he never mentioned Coach Sparks knew/recruited Will Sanders. The Kiro News interview with Will Sanders, Alison Grande ask Will what coach contacted him. Again, he never mentioned Coach Sparks, but said Coach Thomas had not only contacted him but arranged for him to have housing and promised a college scholarship offer. I find it hard to believe that Coach Sparks would be helping Joey Thomas recruit kids from Texas after being replaced after the 2015 season. Furthermore, Joey Thomas took to his social media page with video footage of Will Sander dunking a basketball in Texas. Joey followed up with a comment that we would know this kids name soon.

    On December 12, 2016 a news article was written called “Change of scenery works out for former West Brook athlete” by Brooks Kubena.

    John McKinney is quoted in the article saying…

    “I was a silly project kid with a drinking problem and addiction,” said John, an ’84 graduate of French High who played college football at Knoxville College before “wasting it away” with alcohol and drug addiction, which included crack cocaine. “I was lost in my addiction from 1997 until (2006).”

    The article explains how his son wanted to come live with John in Seattle. Again, it never mentions Coach Sparks recruited him from Texas.

    Focus people! This isn’t about Coach Sparks who haven’t coached the Bulldogs since 2015. Hell this isn’t about RACE either. This about a Black kid that was illegally recruited from Texas to play football for a Black coach, a black principal and a Black Athletic Director during the 2016 season.

    And they are being investigated by a Black investigator.

    Let the investigative process conclude and whatever the outcome is good-bad or ugly… Live With It!

    That’s it!

    1. Yeah… it’s also a fact that Sparks will not go on the record with any news outlet. If he has nothing to do with it then he could simply say that. No one made Sparks arrogantly and stupidly send a text message over to McKinney. I’m pretty sure it can be true that Sparks helped McKinney’s son, and also said every single thing McKinney says he did. It is also a fact that Thompson, the investigator on the case is well known for being hired to do anti-union work in cheating other black people out of their due wages . Black people have always been, and continue to be used as a cover for white racism. Following your logic, Clarence Thomas has never engaged in any decisions as a Supreme Court Judge that have harmed black people. How could he? “He’s black so the impact of his decisions can’t be “racist”. If Sparks had nothing to do with the situation, then why doesn’t he simply say that?That’s one quote I didn’t see posted anywhere. And it is yet to be proven that anyone has been illegally recruited, so I’m not sure how you can make that assertion as you have absolutely no evidence for that. It seems like the only “facts that matter” are the ones convenient to your narrative.

  5. People think they know Sparks and really don’t. He is such a liar, his whole life is a lie. Research how he got the money from a law suit during his high school years. How he benefits from using other people. He claims all he wants to do is help people, but his mom is a janitor at a junior college. Help starts at home! Everyone from his hometown knows he is a scammer. He recruited someone’s child thinking he was going to be a huge success, but things didn’t go his way. When did we start snatching kids from there homes, making them lie to say they were homeless to make a few dollars? Oh, that’s how his Uncle Jerome did him. He wrote a book with a bunch of lies, but fail to say he paid someone to take his SAT’s and had family members writing papers for him. Sparks is a career criminal!!! People need to check his background before hiring. He waits for someone to have an idea then he makes it into his own. He has NO family in Texas, everyone has disowned him because of his actions. PEOPLE DO YOUR RESEARCH!! Claims he helps young men with The House of Champions, just a way to scam money from the government and his GoFund Me is a scam. Don’t let them fake teeth fool you! His career and life is nothing but a CATFISH, people watch out for Derek Sparks. Those checks you get monthly from scamming your high school can’t help you out of this one