On a recent chilly Friday night at Fort Davis ISD’s football field, the stands are nearly empty. No more than a half-dozen parents sat in the visitors section at the rural west Texas school to cheer their team: the El Paso Christian Home School Panthers.
Home school teams like the Panthers, make up a small percentage of the roughly 200 six-man football teams in the state. For the state’s estimated 350,000 home schooled students, this is the only chance they have to play under Friday night lights. Texas law bars home school kids from playing in the UIL.
For junior defensive end Sal Venturella, playing on an organized football team is an important part for his high school experience.
“You get that competition that prepares you for future fights in your life,” Venturella says. “You’re going to go through all kinds of stuff and this kind of competition really helps you a bit.”
This season, the team has also learned a bit about competing while being down. They’ve lost most of their games. Sal’s dad, Sam Venturella, who has been the Panthers’ head coach for three years, says winning isn’t really the point.
‘[It’s] this Friday night light, this football experience, the cheerleaders, the fans come out. You know, I think it’s just great for the community and great for the boys as they grow up,” Venturella says.
Other home school teams for sports like basketball and track have been around for decades. But the first six-man football team for Texas home schoolers wasn’t started until 2005 by Rush Cone, a San Antonio dad.
Cone says he wasn’t able to find a football team for his son, so he created his own called the San Antonio FEAST. The modified six-man version of football was easier to organize and less of a financial burden on parents than the traditional 11-man variety, he says.
“The people that we play against are as competitive as can be from whistle to whistle,” Cone says. “But after that, it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet other home schoolers, and you tend to build friendships.”
The San Antonio FEAST Patriots had 14 players in its first season. They won seven out of nine games that season and played against any team that would take them on, Cone says. The team is still going today.
But home schooled teams have long faced skepticism from public school coaches who worry these grassroots teams aren’t subject to the same strict academic and age requirements set by the UIL.
Cone says home schooled teams have recently overcome this by joining independent leagues.
“We’ve gone from being that suspect kid on the block to being someone who is welcomed. So we have to go to the next stage of being better at playing the game,” says Cone.
The Panthers are part of the Texas Association of Independent Athletic Organizations, known as TAIAO. Wayne Alldredge, the football coach for Austin’s NYOS charter school, started TAIAO five years ago. About half its football teams are home schoolers.
Alldredge, who has coached for 16 years, said he initially refused to book home school teams to play against his team. But he says a conversation with a home school coach about a decade ago changed his opinion.
“The more I learned about it – most of these schools, it’s not like they’re turning away players – they’re struggling to get enough players,” he says.
Coach Venturella says he had to cancel the team’s last season after failing to attract enough players. This season, the Panthers have thirteen on the team, but it’s still been tough with players sidelined with injuries and academic problems.
Home school teams also rely on parent volunteers for things typically covered by school administrations. Not just staffing coaches but also buying gear, paying referee fees and arranging transportation to games.
Parent Julie Hernandez says the commitment is worth it. Her son Dylan, is on the team.
“You know, when you’ve got coaches and parents who are dedicated and put in hours and hours and hours of time, I think it’s important to build a strong program, so that we won’t lose good athletes to the public school system because they want to play on competitive teams,” says Hernandez.
Some Texas home school advocates have been pushing to change state law to allow home schoolers to join public UIL teams. Recently, they’ve come close.
A piece of legislation known as the “Tim Tebow” law—named after the former NFL player who was home schooled but played on a public school team – passed the Texas Senate last session. But it died in the House’s public education committee.
But at the Panthers’ game against Fort Davis, home school families don’t appear worried.
Parent Jennifer Ferraro says the football program is another opportunity the state’s growing home school community has created for itself.
“For us, if it’s something that we want for our kids then we make the effort to make sure it happens,” Ferraro says. “So we have a home school football team. We have a home school basketball team. We have a track team. We do prom, and we have graduation, and it’s all because the parents want that for their kids.”
The El Paso Christian Home School Panthers lost their game to Fort Davis with a final score was 52 to 6.
Coach Venturella says the game was a success.
There was some stuff I saw tonight that I was looking for all season, and I was happy with that,” Venturella says. “I don’t always go by the score. For me, it’s the heart. I want to see them play their best then I’m happy.”