The Nation Christian Academy’s first post-graduate football team was recruited for the 2018 season on promises of rigorous college-preparatory courses and dorm life with two meals a day, former players, coaches and staff told TCPalm.
But what they found was overcrowded housing, unsafe transportation and inadequate nutrition and education, they alleged.
TCPalm’s investigation into the school and lone board member Mike Woodbury found:
- About 40 players and a “mom” lived in a six-bedroom house, violating city code.
- Coaches drove players to games in 16-plus-capacity vans, apparently violating state law requiring a Class C commercial driver license.
- Police were called to the house 10 times in less than three months.
- Meals were meager and sometimes not provided, and one player said the team went almost two days without food being prepared.
- Players said the school offered only one core class and one SAT/ACT prep class.
“These kids were sold, by me, on the idea that I would help them,” said Bill Powers, who resigned in November as head coach and director of football operations. “I sold them on going to this college-like atmosphere. They went to being treated like they were under a slumlord.”
Woodbury, who calls himself CEO of the private nonprofit school in a Port St. Lucie strip mall on U.S. 1, denied most of their allegations, and blamed Powers and players for their myriad complaints about him, the school and the football program.
“He didn’t run the program,” Woodbury said of Powers. “Bill is a great practice guy. On-field guy? Superb. (Off the field,) he didn’t do it. … He didn’t handle operations.”
Nation Christian charged football players, some of whom were on scholarships, $10,000 a year — $7,000 for tuition and $3,000 for room and board — Powers said.
Jontiere Terry-Thomas, a wide receiver from Georgia who left the program in October, arrived in August expecting nice off-campus housing.
“We were all told we would be living by the waterside and live in dorms,” he said. “A day before everyone was supposed to come down, coach Woody (Woodbury) told everybody we were switched to the house on (Southwest) Savona Boulevard.”
The 3,924-square-foot house had a pool, three-car garage and 4½ bathrooms, but bedrooms were crammed with bunk beds — ranging from four to 14, players said.
“It was a nice house, big pool,” Powers said. “It’s not a nice house with 40 people.”
Two days after the players moved in, someone alerted the Code Compliance Division, which fined homeowners Michelle and Marcus Mercado $1,343.40 for having excessive occupants and a large amount of “uncontainerized” trash in the driveway.
The Mercados did not return TCPalm’s calls seeking comment, but a Nov. 29 inspection found all but one occupant had vacated the house, city records show.
“I was never aware it was code,” Woodbury said, referring to the city’s law limiting occupants to two unrelated people. He also denied promising dorm housing.
“100 percent not,” he said. “It was living; housing, that was it. Housing would be provided.”
Powers admitted he and others drove the team’s two large airport shuttle-type transport vans without having a Class C commercial driver license (CDL).
A former New Jersey state trooper, Powers said he knew a CDL was required for a school bus, but not for a large van. “That was ignorance on my part,” he said.
Woodbury pleaded ignorance to TCPalm too, but Powers said when he told Woodbury CDLs were required for school buses, his response was, “I really don’t care about that.’ “
The vans had bald tires and a back that swayed when going over 40 mph, Powers said.
“The buses were unsafe. I mean, they were fine for going around town, but that’s about it,” he said. “He wanted us to take them to games, but I wouldn’t do it.”
Athletic Director Nate Simmons narrowly averted a crash driving home from a Sept. 19 game against ASA College Miami in Hialeah, Powers and players said.
“We were going probably 60 and the bus just naturally sways back and forth,” Terry-Thomas said. “A truck driver came over and tried to swerve back, and we almost collided. We were about an inch away from hitting a semi. After that, we heard this noise from one of the tires, and then we started sliding like we were on two tires.”
Simmons, who declined to comment for this story, left the program soon after.
Powers said when he suggested the school buy a charter bus, Woodbury “exploded on me.” Woodbury told TCPalm the onus was on the football team to buy it.
“We weren’t paying for it,” he said. “Figure out a way to pay for it. That was the agreement. Again, that’s part of football operations.”
The school promised breakfast and dinner at the house, but portions were small — and sometimes there was no food at all, Powers, players and the “house mom” said. If players wanted lunch, they had to buy it at the school, they and Powers said.
“It was like ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” said Deishan Layne, a wide receiver from Fort Myers who left the program in September.
“You would label your food and put it in the pantry, but food was getting stolen. It got to the point where if you brought food to the house, you would hide it,” he said. “It got to a point where we got used to not eating.”
Woodbury denied players missed meals. He said he bought two extra refrigerators, food was dropped off every Sunday and the house mom prepared food — unless the players broke the house rules.
“If the house wasn’t clean or whatever, the food was there and they would have to prepare their own food,” he said.
Kizzy Rucker became house mom in October when 20-25 players remained in the house. She replaced Mechelle Egli, who didn’t return TCPalm’s call seeking comment.
The Sunday food drop quickly ran out, “often” leaving Rucker nothing to prepare, and the deliveries stopped altogether the week before Thanksgiving, she said. She often texted Powers for help buying food.
“I had to go out of my way on plenty of occasions to say, ‘What do you want for dinner, because we don’t have anything here, so I might as well go out-of-pocket and buy it,” Rucker said. “I have several receipts … The last one, they said that they couldn’t give me anything for, because they didn’t ask me to do that.”
The college prep school Terry-Thomas believed he was signing up for, on the recommendation of his high school coach, wasn’t the one he attended.
“I was told I was going to take multiple classes to help get my GPA level up. I ended up taking a history class and a SAT prep course. Me and my mom expected way more.”
He said he didn’t have a class schedule for the first week or two, then was told to pick one of only two classes being offered.
“Before we got there, they had sent us a list of stuff we would need, so my mom and I bought stuff for seven classes — and I only had one,” he said.
The football team once was told to take a week off school, even though undergraduates were in session, and the next week players had only one class, Terry-Thomas said.
Layne said the bookwork didn’t start until the fourth week of school.
“We didn’t even learn,” he said. “In the ACT class, all we did the first three weeks was watch football highlights. They didn’t have a full-on teacher.”
Powers, whose three children attended post-graduate schools in the Northeast, said Nation Christian’s academics were far inferior.
“I sat in meetings in the beginning where (Woodbury) was telling people they would have classes on how to do job interviews and things like that,” Powers said. “He told people anything they wanted to hear.”
Woodbury defended the curriculum, saying the school provided “whatever courses they needed,” and blamed the players for truancy.
“They don’t come to school. How the hell would they know?” he said. “We have an SAT/ACT person who has a degree who was teaching it. We set up a special math thing for them so they would have it.”
“Toxic” was how Layne described life in the house, which he said also had issues with internet access, cold showers and occasional fighting. Terry-Thomas said the house was always dirty and “there was rules, but no one really followed them.”
Woodbury blamed the players, saying they smoked marijuana, threw food on the wall and tossed a picnic table into the pool.
“Hooliganism,” he said. “Know how to act.”
Powers said he offered to have male chaperones stay at the house, but Woodbury said he wasn’t sure that would have helped.
“I don’t know. Does that change how you act if you don’t even respect your (house) mother?” Woodbury said. Once, he said, he went to the house to evict some players with Bill Vega, an assistant coach and the city’s assistant police chief.
“Kids are being asked to leave because they hadn’t paid their bills and they’re throwing a party inside,” he said. “Bill Powers signed a contract as the coach and operations director of football. That was part of his duty and day-to-day responsibilities. (He) never, ever, ever took care of it. It wasn’t the responsibility of the school.”
Woodbury said players stopped paying tuition and attending class when they learned they weren’t eligible to play in the NCAA, yet Powers still let them play football.
“There was no recourse, so they just did whatever they wanted,” he said. “There was never any discipline, never any structure. That was part of what Bill didn’t do.”
The Nation Christian Academy was founded in 1997 as Barnabas Private School, for which state records list Woodbury as the registered agent. The school is in The Market Place strip mall, just north of Port St. Lucie Boulevard.
Woodbury was brought in as the boys basketball coach for the 2017-18 school year.
In March, he hired Powers, who’d built a reputation as a successful coach during a decade at Jupiter Christian, where he won 89 games, including the Class 2B state championships in 2007 and 2008. After a tough, two-year stretch trying to rebuild Jupiter High School’s program, the 59-year-old was looking for a new challenge.
“I wanted a real New England prep school-type experience and that’s what I was sold on,” Powers said, “and it was nothing like that.”
The Eagles had 58 players in August and ended with 21 by the Nov. 2 season finale, Powers said.
Despite the Eagles’ 8-3 winning season, Powers hasn’t been paid what he said he was promised — a portion of each player’s tuition, quarterly — or been reimbursed for “thousands of dollars” in out-of-pocket expenses. Other former coaches told TCPalm they weren’t paid either.
Woodbury said Powers was reimbursed for some expenses, but wasn’t paid a salary because the football program wasn’t profitable, calling it a “substantial loss.”
“He wasn’t hired as a typical football coach,” he said, stressing the difference at a post-graduate private school. “You’re a recruiter. You’re a babysitter. You’re a dorm parent. You’re a bus driver. You’re everything. You’re the equipment guy. You’re their manager.”
Woodbury said he plans to field a team in 2019, but with some program changes.
“Our intent is to be an advocate for the locals,” he said. “Having local high school kids come, so they don’t need all the boarding. They don’t need that. They can come at an inexpensive cost, do a post-grad year and gain another level of exposure if needed.”
But players like Layne likely won’t be back.
“I trusted the program because I trusted everything,” he said. “It looked like a bright future. I came there, and it collapsed on us.”