The darkened skies above indicate yet another afternoon shower on the horizon, which will likely make the conditions on the small football field – a half field in reality – located at Moore Park even more muddy and difficult to run practice drills.
Yet, those conditions do not dampen the spirits of the young men who proudly carry their helmets onto the dampened field for practice. That optimism could be directly connected to the start of a new football season around the corner, or it could be the fact that it is uniform day and the coaches are organizing this season’s jerseys and pants nearby.
The true reason for the enthusiasm that is on display this afternoon is that even a muddy-rainy practice on a small field is something for which the members of the Acadiana Christian Athletics football team are immensely thankful.
“It has been truly a blessing from God,” left tackle Dillon Tullos said. “I am so thankful that he has allowed me to come out here and play this game that I love and play it with friends. It has been a real blessing.”
Faith, family, football
The ACA Defenders are not your typical high school football team.
There is no brick-and-mortar fieldhouse with ACA painted on the side, nor does the team have its own home stadium where its parents and fans can cheer on the team on Friday nights. In fact, the team doesn’t even have an actual high school where they all attend classes.
That’s because ACA is an 11-man varsity football team filled with home schooled students from across Acadiana with an emphasis on faith being part of the fabric of the team and its players.
The organization plays other home school teams and small private schools in the Louisiana Independent Football Tournament.
“We wanted to create a league that gave kids who don’t normally have an opportunity to play high school football a chance,” said ACA head coach Taylor Boutin, who helped created the team back in 2016. “We wanted to make sure we had something for these kids that proudly had faith as part of the athletics – especially with the way the world is today.”
The fact that the team wears its faith on its sleeve is something that appeals to the players.
“It is a blessing to have coaches out here that love the Lord, and it has been a wonderful experience,” said Tullos, who is from Opelousas and is entering his fourth season on the team. “If I say I went to a public high school, there wouldn’t be any or very little emphasis on faith and God, the Bible. It’s really a wonderful opportunity to be here and play for these coaches who love the Lord and talk about the Lord.”
This is something some members of the team have experienced firsthand.
“We’ve been to certain high schools in Texas and New Orleans that we couldn’t pray in a public setting,” said Elijah Watson of Judice, who plays linebacker and running back. “We like to pray before we take the field, and we also at the end of the game like to have a joint prayer. To be able to come together and thank our father for everything that he has done for us.”
The team started off with very humble beginnings nearly four years ago as ACA had a little more than a dozen players to start the season, and most of the kids had to quickly get to know each other and develop a bond without the benefit of attending school together.
“We didn’t have as many players starting off that first season,” quarterback Jordan Freyou of Breaux Bridge remembered.
Once the word got out that season, more and more home school kids from the area began signing up for the team.
“I was really excited because they didn’t have that many home school groups around this area,” offensive guard Damian Leopold of Kaplan said.
Having players from across Acadiana, though, presents a daunting challenge for Boutin and his volunteer coaches. With no fieldhouse to break down film or draw plays on the white board – the team practices at Moore Park and plays games at Clark Field – how do they build a bond with their players when there are only four practices per week?
“That’s the biggest challenge we face,” said Boutin, who is a detective with the Breaux Bridge Police Department. “We don’t have a brick-and-mortar facility or field. We have to use a park’s field. Look, we have kids that are from Jennings, Judice, Breaux Bridge, Church Point, Opelousas and everywhere in between.
“That is great because that makes us a diverse team, but the bad part is it takes a while to build that camaraderie because you don’t see each other in the hallways or classrooms. They only see each other here, so that is a big challenge.”
In addition to team building, there is also the task of finding teams to play the Defenders. There are only a few home school teams in the state of Louisiana, which forces the team to play private and home school groups out of Texas.
Despite those challenges, ACA has laid a foundation for winning success.
After struggling to win only two games in that first season, ACA turned things around in 2017. To be more specific, things improved at the end of that next season, which concluded with a state championship.
“They have grown tremendously,” Boutin said. “In 2016, we won our first game and our last game, and we lost everything in between. We just preached to the guys to trust the system and commit.
“Then in 2017, we lost every single game up until the end of the year when we won the state championship and the national tournament,” Boutin said. “That was a testament to the guys truly buying in even though we were losing every single week.”
ACA built on that breakthrough season by going 8-3 overall and repeating as state champions in 2018.
Perceptions and realities
That level of success has also helped alter people’s perception of home school athletes. Despite having Pro Football Hall Of Famer Jason Taylor – who was home schooled but played for a high school – and Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion Tim Tebow prove that home school kids can play football at high level, there is still a negative stigma attached.
“You just have to go out there and perform,” Freyou said. “I think it is more motivation than anything else. The perception is that we are different and that we can’t do the same things because we don’t go to a typical high school. It is motivation to prove people wrong.”
There is a lot of satisfaction when others get to see what they bring to the field.
“It is one of the best feelings,” said Leopold, who is planning to enter the Marine Corps after this school year. “They think you are just home schooled, and they think we can’t do the things on the field that they do. But when they see us play, they usually come away saying we were better than what they thought.”
ACA may be succeeding in earning respect on the field against its competition, but it is still working on changing the perception when it comes to college coaches and scouts.
So far, ACA has one former player – kicker Andrew Broussard who played in 2016 and 2017 – that is currently on a collegiate roster. Broussard plays for Division III Louisiana College.
“I have gone to several camps before, and the first question from the coaches is always ‘what school do you go to?’” Freyou said. “And when you say ‘home school,’ they always say ‘that’s weird.’ That is pretty ordinary.”
ACA’s organizers are using more traditional tools used by typical scouts and coaches to evaluate players by getting their team on the field against some opponents.
“We just have to convince these college coaches that our home school kids can play,” Boutin said. “That’s why we play these public schools and private schools; that way they can have that film to show to college coaches.”
For Boutin, he is inspired to be the coach he says he never had growing up and give these young men an opportunity to play the sport they love – just like their contemporaries at public and private schools across the area.
“We have real games with real hitting and real competitiveness,” Boutin said. “They are real athletes just like any other kid that goes to any other school. We treat them no different, and neither should anyone else. They are football players.”