Jacob Blackburn just wanted to play one more football season, no matter how far it took him.
Unable to enroll at his neighborhood school, Buckeye Verrado, where he was named the top defensive player on the junior varsity his sophomore year, Blackburn drives 40 miles each day to Wickenburg to join teammates who wonder how he has been able to accomplish so much.
They’re amazed he already has two junior-college degrees, and is on the verge of getting a third in IT Security, that he already went through a Navy boot camp and spent eight months in the military, and that he works one weekend a month in the Navy reserve.
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“They’re asking, ‘How did you do it?’ ” Wickenburg football coach Carson Miller said. “They say, ‘How did you make all of this work and be here to play football?’ “
The 6-foot, 180-pound 18-year-old, who lives 4 miles away from Verrado, made a huge impression in his first game for the Wranglers on Sept. 4. He forced two fumbles and made a touchdown-saving tackle in a 29-6 win at Glendale.
“I just love football,” he said. “I’ve been playing since I was 10.”
But if it wasn’t for Wickenburg letting him in, he wouldn’t be playing.
On Aug. 18, the Agua Fria Union High School District sent a letter to the Blackburns, rejecting Jacob from enrolling into Verrado.
“In a nutshell, it was determined that the student had graduated on a home-school diploma,” superintendent Dennis Runyon said. “The state of Arizona recognizes three types of diplomas. One is a home-school diploma. That diploma was then used to enter the Navy, which requires a high school diploma.”
But Petty Officer Drake Sass, who helped with the process, said that Jacob enlisted under college credits.
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“He had enough college credits to get into the Navy,” Sass said.
Blackburn had 98 college credits with a 3.89 grade-point average at that point. Justin Blackburn, Jacob’s father, said that his son was a half credit short on two history courses to receive the required high school credits to graduate with a high school diploma.
“School has always been easy for me,” Blackburn said. “But I felt in high school, I wasn’t really learning anything. A lot of it was just doing homework and stuff I already knew.”
Blackburn’s parents are Wickenburg alums. Once Verrado refused to enroll him, his father looked into enrolling him into Wickenburg, which has a virtual academy.
Jacob had known Wickenburg’s coach, Miller, since he was 7. Miller is a Wickenburg graduate, playing while Norris Vaughan was the head coach, building Wickenburg into a small-school power.
Wickenburg accepted him right away, Justin said.
“First, even if the state recognizes home-school diplomas, the state also allowed early graduates to play sports until 2013, when the law changed, and, even after that, the law allows districts the flexibility to allow it the same way Wickenburg did,” Justin said.
In 2012, when Jacob started high school, Justin said that he worked with the Verrado principal and guidance counselors to chart an academic path that included him graduating two years early.
He planned to use the Arizona Early Graduation Scholarship Grant that provided $2,000 toward college to help pay the way. EGSG also would have ensured he remained eligible for sports and could graduate with his senior class at Verrado.
Justin Blackburn cited the Arizona Law 15-105 that was repealed.
It states, “A student who receives an early graduation scholarship grant shall be allowed, at no additional cost except for fees charged to all students, to both: 1. Participate in extracurricular activities until the student’s high school class is scheduled to graduate. 2. Participate in the student’s high school class graduation ceremonies.”
Last year, Jacob was home-schooled and didn’t play football at Verrado, while taking courses at Estrella Mountain Community College, and enlisting in the Navy. He was sent to boot camp the week of Thanksgiving.
In late January, he was sent to Pensacola, Fla., where he served until Aug. 10, when he was honorably discharged after graduating his “A school” with honors as a Navy Network Cryptologic technician, his dad said.
He returned home with an itch to play football again.
Verrado athletic director Nick Browder directed questions on Blackburn’s situation to the district office.
“Our position through our board attorney is simply that the student had graduated and matriculated,” Runyon said. “We do wish him well and continued success in terms of his opportunities in the future. But our position was he matriculated and he should be pursuing post-secondary opportunities.”
The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board reviewed the case in August, when Justin Blackburn walked into the AIA office, wearing a Mountain Pointe shirt.
The shirt was a subtle reminder how Mountain Pointe’s football season took a wild turn in November, the day of the Division I state football semifinal against Chandler, after then Assistant Executive Director Chuck Schmidt alerted the school that it had a player who didn’t go through the proper hardship/guardian process to assure his eligibility and that it would have to forfeit its wins.
Schmidt had discovered it in an Arizona Republic profile on the running back’s personal setbacks in his high school life, moving from state to state. The player was forced to sit out, and Mountain Pointe lost the game. A couple of months later, it had its wins reinstated by the AIA Executive Board.
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Blackburn told the board he didn’t want to see Wickenburg and his son go through the same thing.
“Based on all facts presented to us (high school credits, age, semesters since initial enrollment as a ninth grader and no competition his junior year),” new AIA Assistant Executive Director David Hines wrote in an email, “per bylaw, as long as he met all other eligibility requirements, he could be declared eligible by Wickenburg.”
Wickenburg district superintendent Howard Carlson said the school’s decision to let him play was based on provision ARS 15-831 (A), which, in part, speaks to students graduating from a high school with a “recognized diploma.”
“Our analysis determined that Jacob was short credits and that he did not graduate from an accredited institution,” Carlson said in an email. “As such, we believed that he had the right to continue his education and earn his diploma through the Wickenburg Unified School District. Jacob’s desire was to pursue entrance into one of the military academies and we wanted to assist him in achieving that goal.
“As a result of Jacob being a student within the Wickenburg Unified School District, he is eligible to participate in activities within our system.”
He takes a physical education and weight-lifting class on Wickenburg’s campus, while taking online courses to get the half credits needed in U.S. History and World History in order to achieve an accredited high school diploma.
Blackburn is getting used to the long drives to Wickenburg, enjoying the bond that has been formed with teammates, and is hoping to secure an appointment with the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Having that extra-curricular activity such as varsity football looks good on his application.
He wants to serve his country, working in cyber security.
He misses his former Verrado teammates, but he feels at home at Wickenburg, even if it meant traveling with his father after a game in Winslow earlier this season to get back home by 2:30 a.m., only to rise at 6 for his monthly weekend Navy reserve shift from 7 to 4 p.m.
Having a senior season makes the long drives worth it.
“They took me right into the office and said, ‘You can play here and go to school,’ ” Jacob said. “I can take online classes, can go to college and play football at the same time.”
Miller is amazed every day by Blackburn’s dogged determination to be part of the team and have that final season.
“What he’s already accomplished in a short amount of time is incredible,” Miller said. “He’s the most self-motivated kid I’ve seen and it translates on the football field.”
Reach Obert at email@example.com or 602-460-1710. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert. Listen to the Which Wich High School Football Preview Show every Friday from 6-7 p.m., on NBC Sports Radio AM 1060 with Dan Manucci and Richard Obert.