The High Cost of Winning

Wannabe coach and rule-breaker extraordinaire Frank Gachelin: "Nobody owns me"
Steve Satterwhite

Frank Gachelin is sweating. Even with pain shooting through his shoulder, he grinds through an early morning weightlifting circuit. Military press, bench press, triceps pushdown -- a series of exercises so strenuous that perspiration soaks through his torn Jackson Generals T-shirt. Biceps curls, sit-ups, incline presses. Gachelin throws a rusty 45-pound plate on the incline bar. After checking carefully to make sure the weight is even on both sides, he slides onto the bench and squeezes out a set.

“I don't want to get sloppy,” he says, referring not to his form but to his physique, which ripples with muscle. “I injured my shoulder a month ago and haven't been able to lift at all. I'm trying to ease back into it. If I'm telling these kids to lift weights and build up their bodies, I've got to do the same. I need to lead by example.”

The kids are the so-called Backhouse Boys, a roster of talented high school football players he trains here at his back-yard gymnasium. Alumni include Syracuse University defensive end James Dumervil, Louisville linebacker Curry Burns, and a host of other accomplished athletes. After a night of weightlifting, many of these boys crash in the Backhouse, an ad hoc dormitory located on Gachelin's property, which lies on the northern edge of Liberty City.

By claiming to live full-time in the Backhouse instead of with their natural parents, these prized athletes all attend school at and play football for Jackson High, even though the Backhouse is located within the attendance boundaries of Northwestern High School; and even though all the boys used to play for Hialeah-Miami Lakes before Gachelin engineered a series of dubious address changes to enroll them at Jackson.

Last year a New Times cover story detailing Gachelin's football factory prompted an investigation by the Greater Miami Athletic Commission (GMAC), the organization that oversees high school sports for the county school system (“Winning Is Everything,” November 25, 1999). Following that investigation, Jackson's football team was forced to forfeit all eleven victories from last season, Jackson athletic director Jake Caldwell lost his job, the school was fined $1000, and Gachelin was ordered to sever his ties with the football program. Six Backhouse Boys were declared ineligible to play for Jackson.

None of which even slowed Gachelin's operation. In the year that has followed, the ineligible players regained permission to play for Jackson. (Repeated efforts to elicit from school district officials an explanation for how this was accomplished have proven futile.) Every night, long after Jackson's regular football practice has ended, parked cars still clog the street outside the Backhouse, and a squad of boys still grind through the grueling workouts Gachelin promises will make them better players. And according to Gachelin, boosters from rival schools continue to woo him in hopes he'll swing his players toward their favorite teams.

“I love watching these kids grow from the cocoon into a butterfly,” he explains. “That's what I love. I love watching a soft kid who is not good at sports grow from 120 pounds to over 200 pounds and with an attitude of confidence that he can back up.”

The operation is so established now that it is receiving national attention. Last month ESPN magazine profiled “Camp Gachelin,” as staff writer Bruce Feldman referred to it. In the story the former Marine comes across as cocky and defiant, virtually taunting his critics. Although it is against Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA) rules for a coach or a team booster to reward an athlete for good play, Gachelin bragged in print that he is going to give Backhouse Boy Napoleon Thanis an $8000 car if the linebacker gets 30 sacks this season. As he did in the New Times article, Gachelin boasted that the African-American Student Association, the nonprofit organization he formed with fellow Jackson football booster Stanley Bien-Aime, grants him immunity from the rules others have to follow. “With this,” he said of his nonprofit, “I can handle things the way I want.”

The ESPN story enraged state and county officials who police high school sports. “We were very disturbed by the article,” says Fred Rodgers of the GMAC. “Mr. Gachelin should know that we've got our eye on him. We're monitoring his activities very closely.”

“It looks like more of the same old bullshit,” comments Dan Boyd of the FHSAA, which is headquartered in Gainesville. Two years ago, after the mass transfer from Hialeah-Miami Lakes, the state athletic regulatory agency Boyd works for investigated Gachelin's operation, finding a host of improprieties and labeling Gachelin a “want-to-be coach.”

The improprieties continue. According to the ESPN article, Gachelin receives $750 worth of groceries to feed his players each week, courtesy of a donation to his nonprofit group from the Daily Bread Food Bank. A local Burger King sells him 50 Whoppers for only $25. Any nonprofit that accepts donations, whether in cash or in kind, must submit a record of the gifts to Florida's Division of Consumer Services, an arm of the Department of Agriculture that licenses and regulates charitable organizations. Gachelin's nonprofit isn't even registered with the division and has never filed papers.

Last week the secretary of the African-American Student Association, Gachelin's mother, Bernadette Desrosier, declined to provide New Times with minutes from any meetings of the nonprofit's board of directors. Treasurer Regina Lovinsky would not allow corporate financial records to be inspected, even though limited public access is mandated by law. “I'm not just going show our books to just anyone,” she said.

The financial records are relevant. It always has been unclear how Gachelin can afford to house and feed up to fifteen boys at a time -- and to raise his own two young children -- primarily on his wife's salary as a public school teacher. ESPN magazine fueled the debate by quoting a “GMAC source” as saying, “He's in someone's pockets big-time.”

On this sweltering morning, as he works through his circuit, Gachelin reasserts his financial independence: “Bro, I'm telling you, I never took one dime! Not one dime! I will swear on my mother's life, on a stack of Bibles. I am in nobody's pocket! If you take money from someone then they own you, and nobody owns me.”

He recently secured a job selling Craftmatic adjustable beds. During rests between exercises, he's been trying to memorize a sales script provided by the company. “I needed the extra income,” he says as he moves over to the pulldown machine. He lodges a pair of fuzzy brown slippers under the machine for leverage, then smoothly glides the bar down to his neck, six, seven, eight times.

“Look,” he says when he finishes the set. “There are no books. I'll be honest with you. There are no minutes. There's nothing to show you. The whole reason we formed the nonprofit was to give people a place they could donate. But yeah, I've got to tighten stuff up.

“Everyone is coming down on me, bringing the heat,” he continues while dabbing sweat from his forehead. “After the [ESPN] article came out, there was so much heat that my wife sat me down and said maybe it's time to stop the operation. I don't want to quit, but you wouldn't believe the heat -- from the coaches at Jackson, from other schools, even on the street here, the neighbors yell at me for not sending my boys to Northwestern.

“When I was in the Marines in Japan, I used to fight on the streets. The people, they'd look at my face and say, “He's soft.' But bro, I tell you I'm not soft. I am vicious. When I am fighting, I will not stop. Yet even I can't stand the heat I'm getting here. I don't want you to get the idea that I'm a coward, but with all this heat I'm drawing, I just don't know.

“What's the worst that can happen? My wife and I shut this all down. Nobody would be bothering us, and we could lead a simple life raising our own two kids.”

GMAC head Fred Rodgers is looking carefully for an excuse to shut down Gachelin involuntarily: “We're going to be watching everything he does,” he says.

Dan Boyd of the FHSAA plans to reinvestigate Gachelin's operation when he makes his next trip down to Miami-Dade.

It's not yet 10:00 in the morning, but the sun already cooks Liberty City at 90 degrees. It's getting late. Gachelin needs to clean up before making his first sales call of the day. He picks up his towel and the sales sheets he's been memorizing, then heads inside, taking a break from the heat.

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