Ray Holtzclaw first heard from Roy Johnson when his son, Judah, was a sophomore at Westerville Central in 2018.
Johnson, at the time running a program called COF Academy, was interested in Judah becoming COF’s starting quarterback. But the Holtzclaws were happy with things at Westerville Central, so the conversations didn’t progress.
After COF Academy fell apart, Johnson turned his attention to a new program in the same mold — Bishop Sycamore. Alongside Andre Peterson, the duo continued working on their model for a football program.
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That model was exposed on ESPN Sunday afternoon, as Bishop Sycamore lost 58-0 to IMG Academy in a game that prompted a national conversation about Bishop Sycamore’s legitimacy and raised questions about how the team came to be highlighted on ESPN. During the game, ESPN commentator Anish Shroff admitted that ESPN had been unable to verify Bishop Sycamore’s claims that they have multiple Division I prospects on the roster, and he and others on air said they worried for the safety of the overmatched players from Columbus.
Since the beginning of the 2020 season, Bishop Sycamore, which is not a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, hasn’t won a game and has been outscored 342-49. The team has largely been unnoticed until now, and the reaction has been swift. Already, a game against DeMatha (Hyattsville, Maryland) Catholic High School, previously scheduled for Oct. 1, has been canceled.
ESPN also said it was unaware that Bishop Sycamore had played a game on Friday night, as it is unheard of for a team at any level to play two games in 48 hours.
Bishop Sycamore chaos doesn’t surprise Holtzclaws
There are also questions about Bishop Sycamore as a school. It is not yet registered with the Ohio Department of Education for the 2021-22 school year, though it has until Sept. 30 to do so. And the address on record for last year is the address of Resolute Athletic Training near Easton Town Center. Records show Bishop Sycamore was registered as a non-chartered, non-tax supported school — not the charter school it says it is.
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None of this chaos surprises the Holtzclaws.
In Judah’s senior year, with hopes of him playing in college, the Holtzclaws decided he should take a gap year after graduation and play for a prep school to enhance his football opportunities.
“I remembered (COF Academy) and looked them up and they were Bishop Sycamore,” Ray Holtzclaw told The Dispatch. “I called and talked to them and they were like, ‘We’re a totally new program now and things are good’ and all this stuff. We were like, well, you’re local, so instead of us trying to find somewhere, Judah can live at home and play with you guys and everything will be good.”
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The cost to join the program was $1,000. The Holtzclaws were told everything would be covered, from uniforms to travel and hotels on the summer camp circuit.
But at the first hotel on the planned schedule of camps, in Georgia, red flags appeared that Bishop Sycamore wasn’t everything it said it was.
“After the first night in the hotel, we’d checked out because we didn’t want to stay in the hotel again,” Ray Holtzclaw said. “We wanted to be closer to the next camp the next morning. I get a call from the hotel saying, ‘Your bill hasn’t been paid.’ I said, ‘The team’s taking care of it. They’re paying for all the rooms.’ They were like, ‘Well, they didn’t pay for any of the rooms.’ “
Holtzclaw said he gave his credit card number to pay for his family’s room until the team could sort things out. The next morning, he received an alert that his card had been charged $2,500 — the cost for all of the team’s rooms. It was eventually refunded by the hotel.
At the next stop in Dallas, it took only one night for the Holtzclaws to be asked to leave the hotel for non-payment.
After that, the Holtzclaws said he stopped staying in the same hotels as Bishop Sycamore, but they continued to be a part of the program, operating under the assumption that the fall season — and the all-star team Johnson said Bishop Sycamore would assemble around Judah — would go ahead.
Bishop Sycamore problems continue with uniforms and practice space
But as time went on, it became clear to the Holtzclaws that Johnson’s promises that everything would be fine — and, more importantly, better than COF Academy — had been empty.
Everything from players not showing up to join the program when Johnson said they would, to ordering uniforms, to finding practice space became an issue, according to the Holtzclaws.
“When I first started getting involved with this, because my son’s the quarterback, everything was like, ‘We’re going to form a team around Judah,’ ” Holtzclaw said. “But nothing ever materialized. Uniforms and stuff, I kept asking about. When does this happen? When are we getting these? There was always an excuse.”
Finding practice space was one of Bishop Sycamore’s biggest hurdles, and Holtzclaw said he volunteered to help find a place. Bishop Sycamore rented indoor space at Resolute Athletic Complex on occasion, but an outdoor football field proved elusive.
As far as Holtzclaw is aware, Bishop Sycamore still does not have practice space.
“I was always volunteering to help and trying to find places,” Holtzclaw said. “Everything kept falling through. They were always wanting something for nothing.”
Holtzclaw recalls Johnson and Peterson showing up late to camps during the summer and attempting to negotiate half-price rates because they were late.
When it came to ordering uniforms, Holtzclaw was told on multiple occasions that they’d been ordered, only to hear that the order had been canceled because they found a better deal elsewhere. The uniforms, much like the rest of Bishop Sycamore’s promises, never materialized.
“You see their uniforms on TV and they’re mismatched,” Holtzclaw said. “Looks like they went to Walmart and picked up some stuff and scrapped it together. And that’s not a bad thing, if you say, ‘Look, we’re a starter program, you’ve gotta bring your own equipment.’ But that’s not what they say.”
Holtzclaw estimates he spent an additional $1,500 on top of the cost to join the program on everything from hotels to equipment to food for other players on the roster. Many of the players, he says, are at least 19 or 20, though some are high school students that un-enrolled from their original school to join Bishop Sycamore, believing they’d get an education and opportunities to play college football.
“At this point, I know I’m never going to see my $1,000 back,” Holtzclaw said. “I’m more interested that in the future. They can’t continue to operate the way they are, because kids are being duped into thinking they’re going to play.”
Bishop Sycamore director says program is not a ‘scam’
Peterson, who played at Youngstown State for Ohio State coach Jim Tressel in the 1980s, said Tuesday that Johnson was fired as coach after Sunday’s game. On Monday, he rejected the idea that Bishop Sycamore is duping its players.
“There’s nothing that I’ve gotten out of this that would constitute it as a scam because I’m not gaining anything financially from what we’re doing,” Peterson said. “The reality of it is that I have a son (Javan) that’s also in the program and has been in the program for four years.
“If it’s a scam and the kids are not going to school and not doing what they’re supposed to do, then I’m literally scamming myself. And most importantly, I’m hurting my own son. So when people say stuff like that … I would literally be taking my son’s future and throwing it in the trash.”
The Holtzclaws left Bishop Sycamore in the summer, planning to find another prep school to attend. When Judah received a full-ride offer from Youngstown State, he decided to accept that rather than continue down the prep school route. But the conflict with Bishop Sycamore didn’t end there.
“The coach from Youngstown, he’s like, ‘You would not believe it. I got cussed out by one of the coaches at Bishop Sycamore,’ ” Holtzclaw said. “I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Because we offered Judah, who didn’t go to our camp, and didn’t offer any of their other kids.’ … They were just cussing him out. I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds about like these coaches.’
“Supposed to be a Christian organization. Just bad stuff all the way around.”
USA TODAY reporters Chris Bumbaca and Lorenzo Reyes contributed to this story.