With no high school football, a frustrated trainer staged his own game, violating Washington's COVID-19 protocols

©The Seattle Times

Tracy Ford, owner of Ford Sports Performance in Bellevue, Washington, trains professional and up-and-coming amateur players. - Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — Tracy Ford doesn’t mince words explaining his motivations for lobbying to get high school football players back on the field.

“These kids need to be seen,” said the man behind the Ford Sports Performance center in Bellevue, which trains professional and up-and-coming amateur players. “They need to be seen and they need to be evaluated.”

And when Gov. Jay Inslee’s office declined to recommend that the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) resume fall sports after a meeting last month involving the WIAA, the governor’s office, Ford and student athletes, the trainer took matters into his own hands. He organized an invitation-only, three-day mini-camp and showcase game two weekends ago in Tacoma that involved up to 112 top in-state players and well-known guest coaches.

Only problem is, the governor’s office says the game, videotaped for college recruiters, should never have happened: It flouted the very COVID-19 safety ordinances and concerns keeping high school football from being played.

“The governor’s office was not told ahead of time, and we would not have sanctioned this activity,” said Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee. “This is a clear violation of the governor’s protocols for Pierce County.”

The event thrust the wants of high school athletes — and sometimes parents, coaches and trainers — against fears about spreading a coronavirus that’s killed more than 215,000 Americans and sickened 8 million. While Ford said no players have since reported symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus — and had self-quarantined one week beforehand, with pregame temperature checks — only frequent testing after possible exposure can identify asymptomatic cases.

Lines have increasingly blurred between the pandemic and football; the Seahawks are playing their NFL schedule and the Washington Huskies are preparing for an abbreviated Pac-12 season while in-state high school games remain shelved until spring. Even with hefty resources, the NFL and NCAA have had dozens of positive coronavirus tests.

Some youth football is also being played here — including a game for kids 8 and under right before the Oct. 4 contest staged by Ford on the same Tacoma field. And though state and school district officials say Ford wasn’t authorized to use the field for an event drawing hundreds of people, it’s unclear anything will be done about it.

“It depends if we consider it a business activity or a gathering,” Lee said by email. “If it is a business activity (if employees are involved, say, with setting up the field, sound system or lights, etc.), state Labor and Industries will reach out. This is generally the case as with a nail salon or waterslide place that fails to comply and flaunts doing so.

“If it is a gathering, it would be up to local law enforcement to enforce. However, some have chosen not to do that as we have seen with larger gatherings in the Seattle area.”

Indeed, seven months after Inslee’s pandemic shutdowns, enforcement varies from county to county and even town to town.

The day before Ford’s camp, the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department issued an alert about a worrisome spike in local COVID-19 rates. But a department spokesperson said it was up to state officials to deal with violations of the county’s second-phase reopening protocols, which prohibit sporting events with spectators.

The WIAA mandates 12 days of workouts ahead of initial games, and three helmets-only and four full-padded practices before summer camp scrimmages, but Ford said his game’s players already train year-round and none got hurt. He said some had since received scholarship offers.

“These kids’ lives are at stake,” Ford said, adding that dozens of other states are playing high school football. “You know, there’s kids that can be the first kids in their family to ever go to college. And that opportunity is in football. So, it’s very important that these kids are out on the field, not only from a recruiting standpoint, but also a mental health standpoint.”

Not all game participants were from disadvantaged families; some were sons of local business figures, an ex-NFL player and even media members.

Ford’s mental health argument was pushed last month by the Student Athletes of Washington (SAW) group, which includes high school football players, that marched on Olympia demanding Inslee recommend reinstating fall sports. Ford, 34, a former Canadian Football League player and ex-strength coach at onetime football powerhouse Bellevue High School, helped organize the athletes, many of whom train at his 30,000-square-foot, for-profit facility.

“It was the students that wanted to do it,” Ford said. “They needed an adult to help guide them through it.”

Ford marched alongside students, who presented a 28,000-signature petition. But he was put off by a follow-up meeting he attended with students, WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman and an Inslee representative.

“They gave me the runaround,” he said of Inslee’s office. “They’re giving these kids the runaround. It’s not right.”

Ford organized the camp immediately after, securing former Bellevue head coach Butch Goncharoff and ex-Washington State University assistant athletic director Jason Gesser to lead opposing teams alongside assistants including former Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, center Justin Britt, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and ex-Oregon Duck and CFL quarterback Vernon Adams.

Ford’s full-padded game and “shell” workouts — where players wear helmets and shoulder pads but not full equipment — occurred two weeks later at First Creek Middle School in Tacoma. Social-media postings suggest Bellevue was initially targeted, and Michael May, a spokesperson for the Bellevue School District, said by email Ford’s company recently tried renting one of the district’s fields.

“We denied the request because we are not renting these facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” May wrote.

But Ford insists he’d always planned to play in Tacoma, where the gate to First Creek’s field remains unlocked.

Daniel Voelpel, a spokesperson for Tacoma Public Schools, said in an email Ford also lacked permission to use First Creek and would have been refused had he asked. The gate, Voelpel said, was unlocked so community members could perform personal, socially distanced workouts.

“We have a longstanding facilities-use process that all kinds of organizations, from churches to sports teams, must use to access our schools or athletic fields,” Voelpel said, confirming the 8-and-under football game before Ford’s also lacked permission. “Since mid-March, our schools and athletics fields are not available to reserve and are closed to events and reservations.”

The district’s general counsel sent Ford a cease-and-desist letter last week. It states Ford was notified shortly after Labor Day the field was closed to outside events.

Ford was provided the notification, the letter states, after staging an unauthorized Labor Day Weekend football tournament at Wilson High School in Tacoma attended by more than 400 people.

“You did not follow District facility use protocol which would have required liability insurance and other safety protocols,” the letter said of that September event, adding that this month’s showcase camp “showed disregard for district policy and public safety.” The letter warns of criminal prosecution if Ford stages future events on district property.

Ford insisted his company maintains “the very best insurance” and the camp had medical personnel and “wasn’t a reckless event.”

While Ford’s company supplied game uniforms, it’s unclear where players got helmets and shoulder pads. Social-media posts show players wearing different-colored helmets — suggesting some were school-issued.

The WIAA mandates school helmets and shoulder pads be worn only in-season, “except as approved through the local school district policy.” Ford said players often purchase their own helmets and may have used those, though he wouldn’t say whether any districts authorized equipment use.

The Lake Washington School District did allow one participating student to use school equipment, per its policy.

But four other districts responding to The Seattle Times’ questions said they’d refused. Even when players buy helmets, they added, those become school property to maintain and ensure they are safely fitted.

“I know we had a handful of kids there, and a couple of them used their helmets, and I’m doing an investigation on it,” said Pat McCarthy, athletic director for Seattle Public Schools.

McCarthy said one player used a helmet he’d bought, while another received permission to use his school-issued model by a newer coach unaware of the WIAA rule.

“So, we’ve got to clean some of that stuff up,” McCarthy said, adding that the priority is ensuring “safe” play. “They aren’t supposed to use their helmets at non-school-district things.”

Ross Filkins, athletic director at Peninsula High, told families they couldn’t use their gear, though he saw a game photo online of someone wearing an older version of the school’s helmet. Filkins said that when one player already committed to a university asked him whether he should play, he told him no because of game-readiness concerns.

Bellevue spokesperson May also said his district did not “support” the event and is investigating whether its equipment was used.

WIAA spokesperson Casey Johnson said Ford approached executive director Hoffman beforehand seeking clarification about equipment and was provided specific rules. Johnson said WIAA officials subsequently explored only whether players might lose eligibility participating in the camp, decided they wouldn’t and left it alone.

Ford expressed concern a story might “demonize” him. In 2015, Ford was caught up in a Bellevue High recruiting scandal that led to Goncharoff’s eventual departure.

An independent investigator found Ford, while running his center near the school, violated district policy on harassment, intimidation and bullying of students training under him. Ford has denied those accusations.

Gesser resigned from Washington State in 2018 amid an investigation that later found he’d sexually harassed multiple women.

Nonetheless, some parents have heaped social-media praise on Ford and coaches for staging the weekend.

“There are multiple youth football games going on, and youth football practices, but nobody has done it to the extent of what we do,” Ford said, adding: “I want to get these kids recruited and help them. So, you have to create the buzz and market these kids and make the event bigger than life to get people’s eyes on it.”

———

©2020 The Seattle Times