Winning Is Everything

In Miami there's one sure way to build a championship high school sports team: Throw out the rule book and cheat like hell

Two of Miami-Dade County's top high school football teams -- Northwestern and Jackson -- are stocked with ineligible players who employ dubious addresses in order to attend and play for their schools. Numerous student athletes on both teams, which are among the best in the nation, claim to live within their schools' attendance boundaries, yet driver licenses and other public records indicate they actually live outside those boundaries and should be attending different schools. At least one player lives in Broward County. Another claims to live in a house that has been abandoned for more than two years. More than six players say they live at the same address, in a private home that functions as an elite football-training facility.

These improprieties and others documented in a New Times investigation will surprise absolutely no one who is familiar with high school sports in Miami-Dade's public schools. Despite tough talk in the wake of a recruiting scandal at Miami High School two years ago, district superintendent Roger Cuevas has failed to enforce state and local regulations that prohibit recruiting and unauthorized student transfers. The result: a form of institutionalized corruption that taints high school athletics throughout the system.

There is little doubt that many of the best teams in virtually every sport played at Miami-area high schools feature questionable recruits. Name the game and you'll find at least one school to which talented players are drawn like nails to a magnet, be it volleyball, wrestling, soccer, or even badminton (Jackson High's shuttlecock team hasn't lost a match in eight years). The recruitment of star athletes, traditionally a clandestine practice, became a public issue earlier this year, when former football coach Dennis Lavelle filed a lawsuit against Christopher Columbus High, claiming his principal ordered him to recruit student players. (Though Columbus is private, it competes against Miami-Dade's public schools and must abide by all their rules and regulations.)

At the Soul Bowl, Frank Gachelin, left, and other Jackson coaches attended to James Dumervil, who injured his knee early in the game
At the Soul Bowl, Frank Gachelin, left, and other Jackson coaches attended to James Dumervil, who injured his knee early in the game

An examination of any championship team would likely reveal violations of local and state rules. Jackson and Northwestern just happen to be in the spotlight. In football-crazy Florida, and in a county where local high schools have won the past three state titles and five championships since 1991, Jackson and Northwestern finished the regular season ranked numbers one and two in Miami-Dade. Northwestern is the defending state champ. Most visibly, Jackson and Northwestern play each year in the Soul Bowl, a regular-season game that draws more than 40,000 fans to the Orange Bowl and is celebrated for the sense of community it fosters in Miami's predominately black inner city, where both schools are located. The Miami Herald calls the Soul Bowl "the jewel of high school sports in Miami-Dade." Herald sports columnist Linda Robertson raved about the contest: "The Soul Bowl illustrates all that's right about the forgotten value of neighborhood, all that is wondrous about tradition, all that is inspiring about school spirit."

She might have added: It also illustrates just how pervasive cheating has become.

At this year's Soul Bowl, held in early November, a man named Fleurant "Frank" Gachelin stood on the Orange Bowl sidelines. He wore khaki pants, a green-and-yellow Jackson Generals pullover, and a green hat emblazoned with the General's team logo. He counseled players as they rested on the bench, spoke into the ears of coaches on the Jackson staff, and stood next to Jackson athletic director Jake Caldwell as they both watched the action on the field. At halftime he jogged into the locker room, part of the team.

Gachelin runs what he refers to as a "boarding school" for as many as fifteen of Jackson's finest athletes. In a sprawling compound located within the attendance boundaries of Northwestern High (in fact only a long field goal from the Northwestern campus), Gachelin drills the entire Jackson defensive line in weight training and aerobic exercises. He feeds them protein powder and muscle-building supplements. In a specially equipped TV room, he reviews with them endless hours of videotaped game footage as he tries to turn them into the best football players in the nation. The "operation" (as Gachelin calls it) has been great for Jackson and for the boys, but it violates a host of state and local regulations concerning recruiting, residency, and eligibility. Miami-Dade school officials have known about it for years, have even documented transgressions arising from it, and yet they have continued to allow Gachelin's operation

to churn out accomplished football players, all of whom attend Jackson.

Changing schools in order to play sports is so common in Miami that even devoted fans struggle to keep up with mutating team rosters. For example, Ronnie Jones, this year's starting quarterback at Jackson, is a transfer student from Northwestern. Northwestern's own starting quarterback is a transfer student from Miami Springs. Miami Central High's quarterback was the starter last year at Northwestern. A young fellow named Pierre Devoe is listed on Northwestern's varsity roster, provided by the school in response to a public-records request. Yet according to school district records, he actually attends Central.

Prior to the start of this year's season, the top three offensive stars at Miami Springs High moved to either Northwestern or Central. "If they would have stayed, we would be undefeated," grumbles Buddy Goins, Miami Springs's head coach. Instead the team finished the season 2-8.

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