Coronavirus shutdowns have some high schoolers moving out of state to play football

Jeff Eisenberg
·10 mins read

Three of Oregon’s most heralded football prospects are starring for the same high school this season just like they always planned.

They just had to leave the state to make it happen.

Having lost hope that Oregon high schools would play football this fall, the father of Westview High quarterback Sam Leavitt scrambled to find a way to avoid this becoming a wasted year for his son. Jared Leavitt soon decided that his family’s best option was to box up their belongings, leave their home behind and find an out-of-state school forging ahead with fall sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schools in Utah quickly became the Leavitt family’s focus since Jared had put down roots there while playing linebacker for BYU from 1980-84. On the recommendation of a former BYU teammate of Jared’s, the family selected Pleasant Grove High, a highly rated suburban Provo public school with an opening at quarterback.

Upon figuring out his son’s destination, Jared tried to make sure Sam had plenty of skill position talent around him. One of Jared’s first calls was to the father of Westview running back Aaron Jones, a rising junior with four college scholarship offers despite missing all but one play of his sophomore season with an injury. Jared also called the father of Westview wide receiver Darrius Clemons, a rising junior hailed as the state of Oregon’s top prospect at any position.

“We’re going to Utah,” Larry Clemons recalls Jared telling him.

“That’s cool,” Larry replied.

“No, we’re going to Utah,” Jared repeated. “We’re hoping your family will come too.”

The conversation between the fathers of Darius Clemons and Sam Leavitt mirrored discussions in high school football households across the country this past summer. An abrupt change of home address was the only path to outrunning the coronavirus for players and their families in the 16 states that postponed the start of the football season until 2021 and individual districts elsewhere that did the same.

It’s difficult to estimate how many high school players relocated out-of-state in pursuit of their football dreams, but some highly touted prospects are among those to make that drastic move.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The decision to move

In May, the only five-star senior in the state of Illinois announced he was leaving the suburban Chicago school he led to three state title game appearances to transfer to IMG Academy in Florida. Future Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy sensed that there wouldn’t be a season in the state of Illinois this fall and feared that he couldn’t improve without practicing or playing.

USC-bound quarterback Jake Garcia felt he needed game reps as a senior to prepare himself for college because he had never played a full high school season before. As a result, Garcia left his native California and transferred to a Georgia high school last month after his home state pushed back the start of football season until at least January.

Of course it wasn’t just celebrated quarterbacks with boxfuls of recruiting letters who moved out of state in search of football this fall. Lesser-known players made the same sacrifice in hopes of showcasing themselves to college coaches and landing a scholarship offer.

Amid uncertainty over whether schools in his county would play football this fall, a rising senior from the Kansas City suburbs approached his mother two months ago with a bold proposal. Mario Sanchez asked to leave his lifelong friends at Olathe North High School and spend his senior year 350 miles south at his grandfather’s house in Norman, Oklahoma.

“I don’t think my mom believed I was serious at first,” Sanchez told Yahoo Sports.

While Sanchez had drawn some interest from lower-division colleges, the cornerback and slot receiver had yet to hear from any Division I programs. He couldn’t afford to wait until spring to play and have coaches use their remaining scholarships on other players, let alone risk the pandemic worsening and not getting the opportunity to play at all.

“I told my mom that I want to be able to play the sport I love and get a scholarship,” Sanchez said. “She was on board pretty quick after that. She knew the love I have for the game and that my future was at risk.”

The challenges ahead

Leaving the state may help Sanchez land the college scholarship he covets, but a similar move has been a headache for one of his close friends and former Olathe North teammates. The Iowa High School Athletic Association ruled receiver Arland Bruce IV ineligible to compete on the day of Ankeny High’s season opener a month ago and then denied his appeal 12 days later.

According to the Des Moines Register, the eligibility decision stems from the fact that Bruce’s two younger siblings still live with an uncle in Olathe. Under Iowa rules, a change of residence must occur for a transfer to be immediately eligible to compete and “the IHSAA must determine that the family in fact has only one residence."

An attorney for Bruce asserted earlier this month that his client has been singled out unfairly and that other out-of-state transfers in Iowa are violating the same rule. Last week, the IHSAA belatedly ruled Kansas State-bound quarterback Jake Rubley ineligible after he transferred from a Colorado high school and started the first three games of the season for Valley High in West Des Moines.

T.J. Rubley, an Iowa native and former NFL quarterback, previously told Yahoo Sports that he and Jake’s mother were going back and forth between their Colorado home and an Iowa apartment they had leased. It was T.J.’s goal to expand his mortgage broker business to Iowa and to find a permanent home in the Des Moines area.

“My wife’s looking at me like, ‘We’re going to apartment living again?’” he joked. “I told her, ‘It’s just for a short time. Hang in there.’”

Finding somewhere to live on the fly was certainly a challenge for many families who abruptly moved out of state, but there was another aspect the players themselves also dreaded. They had to summon the courage to tell their longtime teammates and coaches that they intended to go elsewhere to increase their chances of landing a scholarship or to better prepare themselves for college football.

Some jilted coaches were understanding of the predicament the pandemic created for players and encouraged them to explore other options. Other coaches bristled at the lack of loyalty from players or bemoaned the unexpected loss of a key member of their teams.

When California announced in July that the state would not be allowing fall sports, cornerback Landon Nelson and his family uprooted their lives to give him a better chance to earn a college scholarship. They informed San Luis Obispo High coach Pat Johnston that they were moving to Iowa — home, jobs and all — in order to give Nelson the chance to play for Valley High in West Des Moines this fall.

Some of the colleges interested in Nelson wanted to see more game tape before they decided whether to offer a scholarship. As a result, Nelson’s family felt he couldn’t risk remaining at San Luis Obispo only to have California cancel the football season altogether.

“We were pretty disappointed because it caught us by surprise,” Johnston told Yahoo Sports. “There’s certainly something to doing what’s right for the athlete’s future, but there’s also something to the aspect of finishing what you started with your friends. So I can certainly see how it’s a tough decision. In the end everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

While Johnston unexpectedly lost a lockdown corner this past summer, high school coaches in states that forged ahead with football sometimes benefited from such moves. Few were luckier than Pleasant Grove’s Mark Wootton, the Utah coach who out of nowhere had three of the state of Oregon’s top players reach out to him to see if they could join his program.

Leavitt, the strong-armed sophomore quarterback, has started every game for Pleasant Grove (5-2) and has thrown for 14 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Jones, the speedy junior running back, averages 5.2 yards per carry and has emerged as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Clemons, the dynamic junior receiver, averages 19.7 yards per reception and already has piled up seven touchdown catches.

What made Wootton most proud is how his returning players welcomed the newcomers. Kids who were likely to cede playing time to Leavitt, Jones or Clemons still went out of their way to help them understand their role on certain plays during preseason practice or to make them feel comfortable adjusting to a new campus.

“I can think of many times where a kid who is playing the same position as one of these guys has helped them learn the offense,” Wootton said. “It was pretty inspiring to see how many of them put their arms around these kids and tried to embrace them and make them feel like they were part of the team.”

And, in return, Pleasant Grove’s returning players have benefited from the presence of the Oregon trio. College coaches who have come to scout Clemons, Jones or Leavitt have discovered that Pleasant Grove boasts a handful of other promising players.

“Our kids are getting watched now,” Wootton said. “Every time someone comes for Darrius, they say, ‘Oh my God, this kid’s a stud or that kid’s a stud.’”

While the fathers of Leavitt and Jones both played for BYU and had ties to the Provo area, the move to Utah was far more of a leap of faith for the Clemons family. Neither Larry Clemons nor his wife had any friends or family in Utah, nor had they ever lived in such a predominately white part of the country before.

Darrius Clemons is a 4.0 student, but the gregarious, social teenager struggled to focus in an online-only classroom setting at Westview High last spring. As a result, when it became clear that Oregon high school campuses would remain closed this fall, Darrius’ parents began exploring a move to some other state where he could play football and return to in-classroom learning.

Darrius’ father didn’t want to return to his native Florida because the state was in the midst of a spike in COVID-19 cases. Darrius’ mother’s native Michigan wasn’t an option either because at the time the state appeared to be leaning toward postponing football to the spring. The family was looking into other possibilities when Sam Leavitt’s father reached out about the opportunity to join them in Utah.

An out-of-state move was unusually feasible for Darrius’ parents because of their jobs. Darrius’ father is a health insurance agent who meets with many of his clients virtually these days. Darrius’ mother works for an online private school. Even the Oregon church the family has long attended is meeting virtually these days.

“We were in a unique position where this move made sense for us,” Larry Clemons told Yahoo Sports. “We thought we’d get the best of both worlds and give Darrius the opportunity to get an in-person education and play football.”

The Clemons family received some strange looks as they packed their belongings, vacated their home of five years and prepared to move to an unfamiliar community more than 800 miles away. Friends couldn’t understand why the family would make such a move with Darrius already a four-star recruit boasting scholarship offers from the likes of Penn State, Michigan, Oregon and Notre Dame.

Most people asked us, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Larry Clemons said. “People on the outside didn’t always understand, but it made sense for us.”

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