Bishop Sycamore: Investigation into football program, school only raises more questions

Sports

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — A day after Gov. Mike DeWine demanded an investigation into Bishop Sycamore, more details have come out about the self-proclaimed high school with a football program that doesn’t appear to be a school at all.

On Wednesday, NBC4 Investigates’ Jamie Ostroff spoke with the father of a former player, visited addresses associated with the school, and dug through records from the state Department of Education, a process that exposed many loose ends.

“Do not tweet or blame these kids for any of this,” said Ray Holtzclaw of Westerville, a father of a former Bishop Sycamore player.

Judah Holtzclaw, a former quarterback for Westerville Central High School, was led to Bishop Sycamore in the spring because of the pandemic, his father said.

“No college coaches [were] getting on campus at Westerville Central to see him during his senior year. No camp visits during junior year,” Ray Holtzclaw said. “He’s still attending Westerville Central, he’s gonna play in the spring [with Bishop Sycamore], and then if he got looked at, he could move onto college when a lot of the [Division I] recruits go to camp.”

But it wasn’t long before Holtzclaw had serious questions about the team.

“Scheduling conflicts, couldn’t get rooms for the boys that were supposed to be coming in … some of those boys never made it in,” he said. “I was like, ‘Where are we going to practice when we have spring ball?’ And he was like, ‘Well, we’ll try here.’ Or ‘We’ll try there.’ 

“So we don’t have a practice field.”

Judah joined Bishop Sycamore in January and never played a single game. His dad said the team eventually agreed to follow Judah to camps around the country. But it was at a hotel in Dallas in June when Holtzclaw said he’d had enough.

“When I woke up, I get a notification that my card has been charged $2,500. And I was like immediately looking up, calling my credit card [company] — what happened? Then I called the hotel and they were like, ‘We ran your card for … everybody.’”

Holtzclaw said that was the second time something like that had happened. Judah then left the team.

Bishop Sycamore came to national attention Sunday with a 58-0 loss to IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida, in a game that was broadcast by ESPN. The announcers were openly critical of Bishop Sycamore, which was playing its second game in three days and had too small of a roster to compete with IMG.

Then journalists and internet sleuths began asking the same questions Holtzclaw had: “What is their end goal? Are they trying to get notoriety?”

An indoor sports facility near Easton Town Center was listed as the school address last year with the Ohio Department of Education, which classified Bishop Sycamore as a “non-charter, non-tax supported” school. An employee said Bishop Sycamore was just a client that would sometimes rent field time.

Bishop Sycamore is not registered as a school this year, as it has yet to submit paperwork according to the ODE, with a deadline of Sept. 30. When you search for Bishop Sycamore on Google, the Youth Build Columbus Community School shows up. 

The executive director there said it once had a memorandum of understanding with Bishop Sycamore to provide education to players. But that fell apart, the director said, after some of the students became homeless and stopped coming to class – and the school got an unauthorized invoice for team uniforms.

A townhouse registered as the address for a “Bishop Sycamore Foundation” belongs to a family who said Bishop Sycamore Director Andre Peterson asked them to set up a tutoring foundation for the players. They say it never came to fruition, and they want nothing to do with Bishop Sycamore.

Neither does Holtzclaw.

“They just need to be barred from being around kids, high school kids,” he said. “Things like this. Because what they did was – it’s unfair.”

Attempts to reach Peterson and former football coach Roy Johnson were unsuccessful. USA Today reported that Johnson was fired after the game on ESPN. Johnson previously ran a similar program called “Christians of Faith” that was shut down by the state in 2018 when it learned players were not going to school.

The address linked to Christians of Faith on ODE records is the Gateway Health and Wellness Center on Jefferson Avenue. According to findings of an ODE investigation, the directors of ODE’s Office of Nonpublic Educational Options visited the address, where they “spoke with two people at the location … who stated they knew nothing about Johnson or COF at that location.”

Tyren Jackson had an online exchange with NBC4 Investigates where he identified himself as the new head coach. He said the team is moving forward and calls all the negative press “fake news,” denying allegations that Bishop Sycamore is not a real school and that some players are too old to qualify for a high school football team.

“Roy Johnson’s business and past can only be spoke on by him because he only knows what truly happened in the past,” Jackson said. “But he is a great man and really cares about the future of young men.”

Jackson said he has been involved with Bishop Sycamore for seven months and had no affiliation with Christians of Faith.

It is unclear when Bishop Sycamore will play again. Its game Friday at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, Kentucky, was canceled by the opponent, and top high school programs in Texas and Maryland have also called off scheduled games against Bishop Sycamore.

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