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Homeless D.C. high school football player kept off field amid questions over eligibility

Jamal Speaks, who says he is homeless, was not allowed to play for Ballou’s football team last weekend, amid questions over his eligibility. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Jamal Speaks put on his pads, grabbed his helmet and got dressed in his new gray Ballou High jersey on Saturday, readying himself for his first game in nearly two years. The 18-year-old student at Ballou STAY Opportunity Academy — an alternative school on Ballou’s campus that allows students to get their high school diplomas — was anticipating showing coaches from Temple University what he could do.

But just as Speaks was about to step onto the field for the Knights, Principal Willie Jackson said he was not allowed to play. The reason? Questions over Speaks’s residency. The complication? Speaks doesn’t have a residence.

The denial caused an immediate uproar among students, coaches and fans. Ballou players refused to take the field for 45 minutes in protest. Several people said Jackson threatened to fire Coach Minoso Rodgers if he allowed Speaks to play.

“I was upset at first, because I had so many people come to see me play,” said Speaks, who said he is sleeping on couches at various friends’ homes. “I worked so hard on and off the field. Have a good GPA, work in the classroom and outside of school. … I’m homeless. So me just trying to stay in the area to get back and forth from school, it’s already tough.”

Only Wednesday did the confusion involving the hierarchy of the two D.C. athletic bodies with nearly identical acronyms begin to untangle. Speaks had been deemed eligible to play for Ballou by the D.C. State Athletic Association (DCSAA), which oversees all high school sporting events in the District. But according to Speaks, Jackson insisted he couldn’t play Saturday because the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA), the city’s public high school athletic league, had ruled him ineligible in August. On Wednesday,  District of Columbia Public Schools officials said they are investigating the matter further and are working with DCSAA to resolve it as quickly as possible. In the meantime, Speaks “is allowed to practice and play with his team.”

Speaks’s godmother, Mia Young, said Wednesday afternoon that they are still unsure if Jackson will allow Speaks to play in Ballou’s next game, Sept. 28 at Theodore Roosevelt.

Jackson and Rodgers did not respond to requests to comment.

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After being away from football for nearly two years because of a previous residency question, Speaks said he asked the DCIAA for a waiver to let him play football this season at Ballou, but the DCIAA denied him in August. Speaks said he then appealed to the DCSAA, which reviewed his case and informed him Aug. 29 he was eligible to participate in athletics at any DCSAA member school, including Ballou.

Both DCIAA and DCSAA claim to be the ruling authority in matters of player eligibility, but Jackson appeared to be listening to the former on Saturday.

Speaks, whose father is deceased and whose mother is not an active participant in his life, was not able to play in Ballou’s second game because he still needed to meet the school’s minimum practice requirement. But according to Speaks, he had met them in time for the third game Saturday. DCSAA Director Clark Ray said that to his knowledge, there were no rules or guidelines Speaks had broken that would have changed Speaks’s eligibility.

Speaks said he had his first face-to-face conversation with Jackson on Tuesday morning. The principal told Speaks he supported him and that he wants him to play. Speaks said Jackson wanted the next step to be an official document from DCPS or the DCIAA stating he is eligible.

“I just want people to know that he said he wasn’t out to get me,” Speaks said of Jackson. “He wasn’t against me. I don’t think that he was on my side, but, I mean, I don’t know what to think about what he had to do about stuff. It’s a lot of funny stuff going on. It’s just crazy. I should have been playing football.”

Speaks’s teammates rallied around him Saturday, refusing to play without him for 45 minutes before eventually taking the field and winning, 48-0, over Anacostia.

In an email forwarded to Speaks on Tuesday, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Office of Enrollment and Residency for D.C. said Speaks is a resident of the District and remained eligible to attend any city school tuition-free — which would also make him eligible to participate in athletics. The office, which reports to the mayor but is independent of DCPS, had been reviewing Speaks’s residency after a tip about his living situation came to the office Aug. 24.

D.C. Councilmember Trayon White Sr. released a statement Monday that said, in part, that he is trying to help Speaks secure housing. Young, Speaks’s godmother, confirmed that Speaks was going to meet with the Covenant House in Ward 8, with White’s help, to discuss housing options.

“Jamal, he is a good kid,” said Donnell Milligan, a former Ballou football player. “All he wants to do is play football and get out of Southeast [Washington]. . . . He always worries about other people and making sure they are straight before him.”

Speaks played for Ballou his freshman and sophomore seasons. He was removed from the team during the 2016-17 school year after DCPS ruled him ineligible to attend school in the District following a residency investigation. Asked about this Tuesday, Speaks acknowledged his mother was living in Maryland then, which is what led to the ineligibility ruling. The next school year, Speaks declared that he was not living with his mother and was in fact homeless, which allowed DCPS to clear him to enroll at Ballou STAY Opportunity Academy, he said, during the third quarter of his junior year.

“With Mal coming back, everyone was happy,” said Ray Yarborough, a Ballou alum. “For the team, it’s more than just football; it’s a brotherhood. Everybody wants everyone to make it out. It is a family.”

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