True to its name, Eastern Christian Academy projects an overtly religious aura, its mission statement promising parents “relevant Biblical instruction” designed to “equip students for a lifelong journey as disciples of Christ.”
Just two years old, the Elkton, Md., high school has one sport: football. The team’s nickname is the Honey Badgers, its logo a five-fingered paw with a cross in the middle.
But when the Honey Badgers take the field, Christian charity stays on the sidelines. Their scorched-earth offense and take-no-prisoners defense are designed to annihilate opponents.
And, apparently, the school is divinely equipped to do so. Last year, ECA had four players on the Maryland All-State team. This season, the team should be even better. The average weight of the Honey Badgers’ offensive line is more than 300 pounds, and the squad has ample Division I prospects.
Among them is David Sills V, the epitome of the All-American high-school quarterback. The Bear native is the unquestioned leader of the team, and he arguably ranks with the best in the nation. A sinewy 6-foot-4 18-year-old with 4.5 speed (completing the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds), Sills has been analyzing defenses since he was 10, picking them apart with his cannon of an arm. He’s also unfailingly modest and polite.
Straight out of Central Casting, yes? And come January, after graduating five months early, he’ll head to Morgantown, W.Va., and enroll at football-crazed West Virginia University, where he’ll be eligible for spring practice with the Mountaineers.
The national hype over Sills began in 2010, when, as a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, he received a scholarship offer from Lane Kiffin, then head coach at the University of Southern California. David accepted, becoming the youngest player ever to commit to football at a major university.
That touched off much hubbub among sports bloggers and commentators, most of whom invoked the name of Todd Marinovich, the infamous mid-’90s flameout who was raised from birth to play quarterback. “Robo QB” spent two seasons at USC and two in the NFL before drug problems destroyed his career and very nearly his life. Recovered, Marinovich now coaches quarterbacks part time and sells his vaguely abstract art online.
Such comparisons were only reinforced by the presence of David Sills IV, who has overseen his son’s career and financed the two schools he’s attended. The president of Daystar Sills, a Wilmington-based commercial contractor, the senior Sills wrestled and played quarterback at Newark High School before going on to play defensive back and quarterback at Virginia Military Institute. “I think David has a lot of talent, and I hope he can get there,” says his dad. “But if he doesn’t, I want him to have the education to fall back on.”
Last year, USC fired Kiffin early in the season (ignominiously, at Los Angeles International Airport). Two interim coaches followed before Steve Sarkisian became the new head Trojan. The Sills pair never developed a rapport with the new staff. And while Sarkisian said he would honor the verbal offer, he recruited two other quarterbacks.
In June, the young Sills officially severed his commitment to the Trojans and, 18 days later, announced that he was choosing West Virginia over the other schools on his short list (Michigan, Virginia Tech, Maryland and North Carolina). “Everything I looked for in a college … all pointed right back to West Virginia,” Sills said a few days after his announcement. “I have two former teammates there—one that I’m very, very close with (Daikiel Shorts, an ECA alum who led the Mountaineers in receptions last year). The coaches were always straight and upfront with me, and said I could come in as a freshman and compete for the starting job.”
Sills felt that “God was closing the doors at other schools.” UNC, for instance, didn’t offer the civil engineering major he wanted. And at Michigan, he “didn’t blend that well” with the staff.
Interestingly, Sills’ decision to join the Mountaineers was initially reported by Steve Clarkson, a West Coast quarterback coach who’s been mentoring him since he was 10 (to the tune of about $1,000 per four-hour session).
Recruits are labeled three-, four- or five-stars (there are very few of the latter). Sills is in the three-star category. According to 247Sports Composite Rankings, he’s the No. 455 player in the nation regardless of position, the No. 17 pro-style quarterback, and the 10th-ranked player in Maryland. Scout.com rates him the 35th best QB in the class of 2015.
“Their offense really fits me,” says Sills about West Virginia. “They like a mobile quarterback who can throw really well—and they throw a lot.”
Eastern Christian Academy is housed in a 12,000-square-foot former office building on 12 acres just outside Elkton. Classes are essentially online through International Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that offers a variety of accredited virtual options for students in grades K-12. All told, ICA has more than 45,000 students among its accredited private and public schools, including some at New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
While most ICA students take their classes at home, ECA’s convene Monday-Friday at 8:30 a.m. As the 2014-15 school year began, enrollment was about 55—all male, all football players. In fact, as of this past July, football was the only extracurricular activity offered at ECA—though the school’s website indicates basketball and lacrosse will be initiated this year.
As one might imagine, the Honey Badgers’ success on the field, combined with the unusual academic setup, has invited national scrutiny. Many purists, not to mention fans of opposing teams, have dubbed ECA a “football factory.”
With no home field, the Honey Badgers went 9-3 last season. Their schedule was dotted with powerhouses from six states, as far away as Florida. Sills completed 68 percent of his passes for a staggering 3,128 yards, 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for 15 TDs.
Eastern Christian Academy head coach Dwayne Thomas calls his quarter-back “the best athlete on the team.” While the 200-pounder is not the strongest (although he bench-presses a respectable 245), “he’s the best jumper—the highest and the longest—and he’s the best sprinter,” says Thomas. “And he’s very loose in the hips [coach speak, indicating a key athletic trait].”
Unaffiliated with any league, ECA faces another tough schedule this year. It sends the team to five states and Washington, D.C., which began with an Aug. 29-Sept. 13 march through Texas that pit them against three of the top teams in the state. Players missed the opening week of school.
Sills’ primary goals are the usual: First, win every game; second, improve those personal statistics. Completing 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 40 TDs and adding 15-20 rushing scores would also be satisfying, he admits.
Thomas says Sills possesses the intrinsic talents necessary for quarterbacks. “I’ve coached 19-20 guys who have played in the NFL, and I’d say David’s work ethic and leadership skills are the best of anyone I’ve coached,” he says.
David N. Sills IV started his contracting business in 1991, building it into a highly successful enterprise that specializes in a wide range of commercial and industrial projects. He and his wife, Denise, live in Bear and have a second home in Rehoboth Beach. Besides David V, they have two daughters, Emma and Abby. Both are adept at keeping their younger brother’s ego in check. The family also adopted Jahmere Irvin-Sills, an ECA grad who’s a sophomore cornerback at Mississippi State.
A good five inches shorter than David V, Sills projects none of the stereotypical bluster of the ex-jock turned fanatical booster. There would be no Honey Badgers without Sills—and in a voice that rarely rises above conversational volume, he counters the “football factory” charge with a reasoned response. ECA, he says, “is a school to save kids. Most of our students are very talented kids, but they’re generally at risk.” And most, he adds, can’t afford college without some type of athletic scholarship. “If you look at the history of what we’ve done, most of our kids have gone to school on full athletic scholarships,” says Sills. “So we’re pretty thrilled with our ability to get these kids a college education. As everybody knows, the chances of being a professional athlete are slim to none.”
On a current squad that numbers about 50, Sills counts 21 who have Division I potential. Five seniors hold scholarship offers. They will follow in the footsteps of 16 Red Lion and ECA graduates now on full rides at 13 schools: USC, UCLA, Auburn, Michigan, Tennessee, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Syracuse, New Mexico, Connecticut, Lehigh, Maine and West Liberty.
Sills hopes that ECA grads will get their college degrees and go on to become productive members of society. “Hopefully, after we establish an alumni base, they’ll help other kids come through the program,” he says. Sills puts the school’s optimum enrollment at 750, male and female. He’s hoping ECA can eventually offer every traditional high-school sport “and run them in the same way—try to get scholarships for the athletes.”
Maintaining that the administration is “very, very happy” with the school’s Internet-centric academic program, Sills calls it “very rigorous.” “Not only are you learning material, but you’re also learning how to get things done in a timely fashion,” he says. “Pretty consistently, our core GPA has been right around 3.0, so we’re thrilled. We do have some kids who struggle, but we have some extremely intelligent kids, too.”
And Christian fundamentals do figure most prominently. “We say that God is first, academics are second and athletics are third,” says Sills. “But we don’t have a huge differentiation between the three. God’s a 10, academics are 9.9, and athletics are 9.8.”