Under a shade tree near the sprawling expanse of practice field outside Castleview Baptist Church, coach Norm Tate stood talking about the growth of the Lions Home School Football Club in the decade since it was established.
Tate, a police officer in Fishers by day, explained that his players are primarily from Marion and Hamilton counties, but weren’t restricted to those areas. They also come from Brownsburg, Avon, Zionsville and elsewhere to practice four days a week near 86th Street and Hague Road.
Tate then took a glance at his watch and called out to one of his assistants: “Hey coach, is Nibert here yet?”
The words had barely left his mouth when Brandon Nibert, a 6-foot, 185-pound lineman, raced past Tate on his way to the field, shoulder pads in hand. Four days a week, Nibert makes the 100-mile round trip from Kokomo for practice.
“Sometimes he’s a little late,” Tate said with a smile. “Understandably so.”
The Lions are the state’s first home school football program, though there are now two others, one serving the city’s Southside and another in Fort Wayne. Tate would eventually like to see other programs start in cities like Terre Haute and Evansville in the near future, building a statewide league of home school football programs.
The Lions face challenges unlike those of teams affiliated with the Indiana High School Athletic Association, as seemingly simple as getting everybody to practice on time. The aspects of Friday night high school football taken for granted — the band, alumni base, playoffs and even a home field — don’t exist for the Lions. They won’t win a state championship, or even be remembered in a school yearbook.
But for the 30-something kids like Nibert, the practice field at Castleview Baptist Church truly is a field of dreams.
“Most people don’t think of home-schoolers as being athletic, necessarily,” said senior fullback and outside linebacker Kyle Jennings. “It’s cool to know there are other people out there like me. A lot of them are good friends, especially the juniors and seniors who have been around for a while.”
Getting a start
Mike Kidd’s oldest son, Andrew, grew up playing in the Fishers youth league football programs. But beyond the youth league level, there was nothing available locally 10 years ago for players to continue on into high school.
The IHSAA rule at the time did not allow home-schooled students to participate in IHSAA-affiliated high school athletics.
“We were thinking, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ ” Kidd said. “There wasn’t anything out there for home-school kids.”
The Kidds joined with another family to get the word out to churches and youth groups, looking for those in a similar situation. There were enough players to establish a junior high program the first two years, and then a high school team in 2006.
It was football. But it was also far from the bright lights of, say, Carmel or Warren Central on a Friday night.
“The first two years we spent practicing in left field of a softball diamond,” Kidd said. “We had no (yardage) lines. When we had our first game the kids were saying, ‘Hey, we have lines!’ It was all new to them.”
There were also important factors, such as insurance, that needed to be addressed.
“Things that we never even thought of,” Kidd said.
Tate, who had been coaching his oldest son Ben in the Noblesville youth league, has been with the Lions from the beginning. One of the most difficult parts, Tate said, was convincing IHSAA teams to play them.
“Once we got the high school team started it was like, ‘Who are you guys?’ ” Tate said. “I don’t blame them. We were new. But we’ve started to establish some relationships over the years.”
After a 9-1 season last year and with several key players returning, Tate ramped up the schedule. The Lions have started 2-2, but led at halftime against Class 3A Greencastle (4-1) before losing 48-27.
“We used to get killed when we’d play a school like that,” said senior wingback and linebacker Matt Baker. “But we’ve gotten progressively better every year, to the point where we can play with those teams.”
Strong-armed quarterback Graham Lindman, a 6-3 and 200-pound senior, has earned some Division I interest. Lindman, from Noblesville, said he might not have progressed into the player he is if he had attended a larger school. Lindman was under 6-foot until his junior season.
“I don’t know if I would have even got to play quarterback because I was a small kid,” he said. “For me, this was probably the best opportunity.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback is that there are no playoffs for the Lions to measure themselves against other teams at the end of the season.
“I really wish we had that,” Lindman said, “because I think we’d do pretty well.”
IHSAA rule change
In April, two years after the Indiana General Assembly discussed a bill mandating a change, the IHSAA executive board passed a resolution to allow home school students to participate in high school athletics as long as they meet certain criteria.
The rule states that a student must have been home-schooled for three years before he or she is eligible; the parent must submit academic information to the school to prove the student is passing all courses; the student must meet all academic requirements from the IHSAA; and the student must be enrolled in the school for at least one class per day.
Cox said the IHSAA hasn’t kept statistics on the number of home school students taking advantage of the new rule, but said he does know of “some isolated incidents.”
“It’s not a large number by any means,” Cox said. “I think the pure home school parent and child do it for a reason; often times it is religiously-based. They probably don’t want any part of a public school. But I know there are a few people out there who are doing it and I haven’t heard any bad reports.”
Not all of the Lions are actually home-schooled. Tate estimates that 70 percent of the players are, but several others attend private schools that don’t offer football. Baker is one of two players who attend Herron, a Downtown public charter school.
Because the Lions are outside of the IHSAA jurisdiction, the program can operate however it chooses. But Tate said the unwritten rule is that it will only take home school players or those who attend a school that does not offer football.
“A lot of people are interested in hearing about religion, but that is a common theme with a lot of these boys,” Tate said. “Most of them are very active in their church. We got to a camp every July for four nights called ‘Higher Ground’ near Cincinnati, which is where we can really bond as a team. Because we aren’t a traditional school and the kids aren’t around each other all the time, we have to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Jennings said he briefly considered trying to play at Noblesville once the IHSAA rule changed, but he decided to stay with the Lions. Baker said he never would have had the opportunities he’s had if he tried to play at his home district public school, Hamilton Southeastern.
“I couldn’t play wingback there,” he said. “There are too many kids. I’m glad I stayed with it here. It’s been great.”
Kidd said he’s not surprised that the program has sustained and grown through the years. The team raises money through fundraisers and parent donations every year, paying for travel, uniform expenses and field rental fees. Like Tate, all of the coaches are volunteers, fathers of players on the team.
“The cool part for me to see is that these kids would have never met one another in 100 years if it wasn’t for this team,” Kidd said. “Kids coming from Brownsburg, Avon, Kokomo. Good grief, that’s dedication. You truly have to want to be here.”