Prep football in Louisiana gets people fired up like almost nowhere else in the country. Where else can a driver purchase a personalized vanity license plate displaying one's high school loyalty? It's a short list.
But, the story that's been flying under the radar is what's happening with home schoolers at the high school level.
Saints spring football camp is underway. The coaches are grinding. The players are sweating and bonding. It's time for black and gold football in New Orleans. But we're not talking Payton, Brees or Graham. These are the Home School Saints. They work out and play at City Park - at least for their home games. It's a bunch of kids whose parents have decided that home schooling was the best option for them academically. However, socially and athletically, there was a piece missing.
Hence, head coach John Burke decided the best thing to do for these kids, and his own children, was to form a football team and to work on home school athletics.
"Six years ago, there were some home school boys who wanted to keep on playing football after their youth football days," Burke said.
The idea to start the Saints came after Burke heard about similar programs in other states. That knowledge, along with experience he gained rebuilding a youth football program after Hurricane Katrina, helped the Home School Saints come to life.
"We only had 18 kids that first year, Fred, and I can't say that there were many victories because there weren't any victories," he said. "But we did get a varsity football experience for our home school kids. And they came back in droves. And it's been a program on the rise ever since."
The program is a self-supporting group run by parents and volunteers. Parents are the assistant coaches, trainers, transportation - the works.
"It's a worthy commitment," one parent said. "We do have to get him back and forth and everything else, but we've never experienced a program like this where it's all centered around the athlete. Where a lot of high schools, you step into a program, and in that program, you're just a number. That's not so here. And Coach Burke has done a good job in not only teaching these kids athletics, but teaching them to be solid young men."
The players have varying skill sets. Some are beginners, some more accomplished athletes, but all are welcome, and, all are dedicated. One player broke his leg in practice, but still showed up to support his team, even in cast and crutches .
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, promptly at 5 p.m., and Saturday mornings at 8 a.m. sharp, practice begins, lasting for two hours. If you're early, you're on time. Self-discipline is one of the greatest lessons taught here.
The team comes from all over the area, even the coach's wife who, in addition to "home school saint" john burke junior, is home schooling three daughters.
The schedule for the team is also gratifying. The homecoming game is Oct. 18 versus Acadiana, followed by a game versus the Brother Martin ninth-graders. The title game will be played in New Orleans.
"Some of the biggest supporters in this city are other high school football coaches, because for them, it's never been about money, it's never been about power, it's always been about giving kids opportunities to play team sports," Burke said.
So, Saints football is here. And in every game, they have the home team advantage.