Ranked the county’s top team in several preseason polls, Helix Charter High School opens its football season Friday night at Eastlake—the lone unit to defeat the Scotties in a magical 2011 run to their first state title.
But along with CIF trophies and Player of the Year honors for quarterback Brandon Lewis and teammate Kacy Smith came allegations that Helix coaches used inappropriate practices to build future all-star teams.
Last October, after host Helix beat Grossmont 21-0 in a freshman football game, two players for the Hillers said Helix coaches encouraged them to switch schools.
According to a handwritten note obtained through a Public Records Act request, one student said: “After I shook everyone’s hand [during the postgame lineup], one of the Helix coaches called me over and said ‘Hey 42 your pretty dam good. You should come over to Helix next year. You could make this team [even] better.’ ”
In another document dated Oct. 21, 2011, and made available by the Grossmont Union High School District, a second freshman player said: One of their coaches [shook] my hand and [said]: One hell of a game and hope we can play with you.”
Helix Athletic Director Damon Chase said his freshman coaches denied having invited Grossmont players to transfer. But he said that when coaches talk to opposing kids, “it certainly opens the door for some criticism and some miscommunication.”
So Chase ordered his coaches not to engage with other teams’ players after games, limiting them to shaking hands only with opposing coaches, he said.
“I handled that. I dealt with it,” said Chase, a Helix alumnus himself. “Do we need to broadcast that we made the change internally? No. But when issues are brought up, we certainly look into it.”
Chase noted that if students arrive as a ninth-grader, “they can go anywhere” and students “can make one transfer—as long as it’s not athletically motivated—before the sophomore year.”
CIF Bylaw 510 [attached as PDF] defines “undue influence” and penalties for inducing a student to transfer schools to play sports.
Chase said there were perceptions of rule bending by Helix a decade or more ago, but the school now plays by the rules.
“We probably were questionable 15-20 years ago in the way we approached kids and kids approached us,” Chase said. “A kid played football here, rented an apartment across the street … and played basketball [at Grossmont] the same year. People will bring that one up forever.” The student also played football at Grossmont his sophomore and junior years before starring at quarterback for Helix his senior year in 1995.
But Chase said Helix now has a reputation in the Grossmont Conference for playing by the rules. Among athletic directors, he said, the view is that “Helix is going to do the right thing.”
Chase and Starr also adamantly reject perceptions of Helix being a football magnet school, with Starr stressing: “There’s a complete balance at this school,” including academics. “It’s a school trying to be excellent in everything.”
And while they insist they have no idea how many of their players last season lived outside traditional attendance boundaries, Chase and Starr say it cuts both ways.
“We also have kids in our [attendance] area who are [playing] at other schools,” Starr said in a mid-January interview in his classroom office.
Said Chase at the same interview: “We get that knock a lot, and we’re not actively recruiting. … It is the entirety of our program, our school, that we offer.”
Moreover, Helix resists hosting Pop Warner football leagues on its fields—something he says is done by a half-dozen other schools in the district.
“We’ve avoided that for a lot of reasons,” Chase said, not just the eyebrows that might be raised, but “the headaches it brings.”
“I think [hosting Pop Warner] gives you an advantage, but we never had it, never wanted it,” Chase said. “You come here on a Saturday, it’s AYSO soccer all day long. And we’re fine with that.”
Chase added: “There are other schools in this district that are out [showing their colors] at middle schools that they have no business being at.”
For his part, Starr said: “If we talk bad or say negative things about other schools, then we don’t have enough good stuff at our school.”
After Helix won its first state football title last year,of Loomis in the Division II Bowl in Carson, Starr praised the support he got from the Helix administration, led at the time by executive director Rani Goyal.
What did he mean by support?
In the January interview, Starr said Helix leadership shared his belief that the football program is “the front porch of the school” and backed a system that demanded the most from students.
“Some [school] administrations don’t want to push the envelope as far as how hard you’re going to push kids,” Starr said. “It’s real easy to be real average. When you start pushing, pushing, pushing, there’s a little bit of fallout from that in today’s society. We want excellence in our program.”
Starr asserted that “the political thing is to be average—right down the middle, no waves. … Guys who want true excellence have to have support.”
Starr says his program—based on the “year-round plan to win”—is 100 percent “Urban Meyer stuff,” referring to the former University of Florida football coach Starr worked with just before moving to Helix in 2008. Tim Tebow was quarterback at Florida in those years. Meyer is now head football coach at Ohio State University.
“We start ... January 9 at 6:45 a.m.—120 kids,” said Starr, a tenured teacher who also teaches three PE classes a day. “We work out really, really hard” and pointed to YouTube videos depicting the Helix Football Champions Club.
With his six assistant coaches—who sometimes share $3,000 stipends with other volunteers—kids work on strength, flexibility, speed development and are tutored in nutrition, diet, “all that stuff,” said Starr, whose $5,100 stipend is the same as other head coaches in the district.
Chase repeated an oft-told story: “I’m down here to unlock the stadium in July at 6 o’clock in the morning and Starr’s here watching film on Cathedral [Catholic High School].”
Coaches dedicate thousands of hours “above and beyond a pretty measly stipend when it comes down to it,” Chase said. “That’s one of the things that separate us—the willingness to volunteer thousands of hours to … help kids get better.”
Chase, who in 2009 was named a CIF-San Diego Athletic Director of the Year, says Helix has other advantages:
We’re in a great location [geographically]. We have underperforming schools around us—whether it’s the [San Diego] city schools or … schools in the Grossmont district. And people want to send their students to not only a great academic program but a great athletic tradition.”
And while a half-dozen coaches contacted for this story hailed Helix for its incredible overall talent in its 2011 season (one wrote: “I have never seen a team with that quality of depth at every position”), Starr said: “I can tell you this. I can go to other schools with this program and this coaching staff and we could have success. I took over a program [at Taft High in Woodland Hills] in 1992 that the year before was 0-8-1, and we went to the championship game in my first year.”
Starr is especially proud that the Helix junior varsity shares his varsity coaches—they rotate halfway through daily practice.
“That gives us a huge edge because they’re really trying to give them the same system,” he said.
His future at Helix?
Starr, who turned 50 in February, says he loves La Mesa and the school’s diverse population and blue-collar neighborhood and loves being a 5-minute walk from school—saying he could hit the football field with a golf ball from his home above it with the right driver.
“Coaches are matched with their school,” he said, “and this school is me.”