One of Seattle’s flagship high schools is under investigation for possible football recruiting violations tied to a youth from Texas, who says he was flown north to Garfield High with promises of athletic opportunity.
Will Sanders, 19, spent last fall’s football season as a running back for the Bulldogs, where he was the third-leading rusher — even though poor grades would have made him ineligible to play the entire time. While here, he bounced between the residences of a track coach and team parents.
Meanwhile, the team racked up its best season in years.
By November, after Garfield’s season had ended, the youth said he was encouraged to return to Texas for the Thanksgiving holiday, with promises that he would be able to return.
“They told us they would pay for us to come back up after Thanksgiving,” Sanders said in an interview, referring to himself and another youth who had been flown up from the city of Beaumont, in southeast Texas. “But when I called, Coach Thomas starts giving us the runaround, and that was it. They just left us.”
A month later, district records show Sanders had been officially removed from Garfield’s student database.
But the youth said that was never made clear to him, and he showed up in March outside the school’s Teen Life Community Center, trying to contact his old coaches and wondering where to go.
After The Seattle Times raised questions about the youth’s case, the school district said it had hired an outside investigator to look into possible violations at Garfield.
Sanders said he originally came north after talking with the school’s football coach, Joey Thomas, who discussed a glowing athletic future that would await him in Seattle.
If that account is accurate, Thomas would have violated rules set by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) that prohibit promoting a school’s athletic program to attract particular students.
“Attempting to induce or encourage any prospective student to attend or continue to attend any member school for the purpose of participating in athletics, even when special remuneration or inducement is not given, is a violation,” according to the WIAA’s rules.
Potential penalties range from game forfeitures to school fines, to suspension from the league.
Contacted at home earlier this month, Thomas directed all questions to his lawyers, though he declined to provide their names or phone numbers.
“I would really love to comment — it would shed light on a lot of things,” Thomas said. “But I’m bound by the legal process, and I’ll let the legal process take place.”
About the Sanders situation, he added, “I don’t believe it’s murky at all.”
The saga began with a video Sanders said he posted to Twitter and Instagram last summer, showing him and a buddy playing basketball in a Beaumont gym.
“I posted some videos of me and my brother dunking,” the teen said in an interview. “Then at open gym the coach says, ‘I got somebody that wants to talk to you.’ He told me that this guy is connected to a team in Seattle that might want me to play for them. They told us we wouldn’t have to worry about nothing.”
The other youth on the video is not Sanders’ actual brother, and their relationship is hazy. But they go everywhere together — Sanders often speaking for both — and both were enrolled at Garfield after Sanders posted them shooting hoops.
The man who originally saw Sanders’ video was John McKinney, father of former Garfield football standout Cameron McKinney — another youth from Beaumont who found success at Garfield and earned an athletic scholarship to the University of North Dakota after playing one season with the Bulldogs.
McKinney connected the boys with Garfield’s coach, Sanders said.
McKinney said he then paid for their tickets to Seattle, listing himself as “guardian” on Sanders’ school-district paperwork. He maintains that he was simply reaching back to give the youths the same kind of life-changing second chance his son had received.
“I brought them up here to get a chance, an education,” McKinney said. “If they play sports, they play sports.”
The two boys arrived in Seattle in early September. Within days, Garfield’s then-Athletic Director Ed Haskins temporarily authorized Sanders to join the football team despite poor grades from Texas that would have made him ineligible.
The following month, school records show, Garfield Principal Ted Howard approved Sanders’ status as a homeless youth, which is considered a hardship and can allow students to play despite poor grades.
The team went on to an 8-2 season, its best in years. Sanders, who played in six of Garfield’s 10 games, is credited with five touchdowns and 574 total rushing yards.
Haskins has since left Seattle Public Schools and recently started work as an assistant basketball coach at Washington State University.
Reached by phone and informed of the investigation, he said, “Wow. Oh, wow. I think I should end this call now and speak to someone at the district.”
Howard, the principal, declined to comment while the investigation is underway.
Rules governing the WIAA say students listed as homeless are supposed to be reviewed by a district-level committee to ensure the legitimacy of that status. But no such hearing was requested in Sanders’ case, said Sam Jackson Jr., who oversees player eligibility in the Sea-King district.
“Absolutely there should have been one,” he said. “I’ve been doing this seven years, and that’s unusual at best — extremely unusual.”
Mike Colbrese, executive director of the WIAA, said that a parent who provides housing or plane tickets to team members is not necessarily violating league rules. He did not elaborate and could not be reached for further comment.
Other than McKinney, the adult most closely associated with Sanders’ time at Garfield is Mike Nall, father of this year’s Bulldogs’ quarterback, who says he housed Sanders and eventually bought plane tickets for both youths to go back to Texas.
“They didn’t act right,” Nall said, pointing out that the boys rarely attended class. “The only story here is about how these kids screwed up a great opportunity.”
After sending the teens back home, Nall said he never expected to see either one again.
But Sanders said he understood differently. Graduating from Garfield would have made him the first male in his family to get through high school, which cast the chance to start over in Seattle as particularly meaningful. His mother back in Texas moved to a smaller house after Sanders left for Seattle, and there wasn’t much of a home to go back to, he said.
After the holidays, undeterred by the chilly reception Sanders and his buddy say they were receiving from Thomas, the youths raised the money for return tickets on their own — neither would explain how — arriving back in Seattle last month. They phoned Garfield track coach Kwajalein Griffin, who helped enroll both at Seattle’s Interagency Academy, an alternative school.
Interagency staff have floated the idea of the youths starting next fall at Rainier Beach High, which has a well-regarded athletic program.
But Sanders appears worn out from using his talents on the field. A few weeks ago, he asked a counselor at Interagency: “What if I don’t want to do sports?”