Winning in the Worst Way

Last spring, Detra Gobert swapped her Houston police sergeant's uniform for the more down-to-earth role of football mom, taking a place on a couch in the Memorial-area home of Jeanette and Larry Ramming.

These affluent benefactors of the Northwest Academy football team were hosting an informal meeting that included her son, several other football players and Ted "Rock" Knapp, the Baptist school's athletic director and head coach.

Gobert, expecting a typical pep talk, says she was shocked when the coach warned the student athletes to keep this session secret.

"We're meeting here, but you can't tell anybody else that we're meeting here," Gobert recalls Knapp admonishing the group. "What we discuss, don't tell your friends."

The implication that the confab might somehow be subversive struck Gobert as ludicrous. Weren't they there simply to arrange scholarships to the private school, now known as Houston Christian High School? The Rammings had agreed to underwrite financial assistance worth over $5,000 a year per student.

Gobert knows to keep close tabs on her son's activities, because she has seen enough examples of kids gone wrong in her 16 years as a cop. She was surprised to find she was the only adult guest at the meeting and that Knapp seemed distinctly uneasy with her presence.

Gobert was not familiar with high school football recruiting regulations, but the spectacle of a Christian coach advising his players to conceal the session gave her pause.

"I was upset," recalls Gobert. "I took Jeanette to the kitchen and told her I was not comfortable with someone telling my boy not to be truthful about things. At the time she said, 'It's going to be okay, he's just trying to make sure they don't go and tell people.' "

The school offered a scholarship program called Choice for Children, but it was intended to help underprivileged students, not to beef up the roster of a football squad. However, some parents say that's just what happened.

In 1996 the school had only one athlete on the Choice for Children roll. The next year, there were nine, according to school officials. And Knapp himself said there were 11 "Choice" children on the team.

Impacts were obvious. In three seasons, the Northwest Mustangs coach transformed a dog of a team into a state championship runner-up the last two years.

It was the price of that success that upset some parents. They say Knapp's lust for winning brought in players with discipline problems -- one allegedly dealt drugs on campus -- who would disappear after the season as quickly as they had come.

Knapp's critics said that, coupled with questionable cash gifts to the coach and the program, the little academy dedicated to Christian ideals got swept away by the ungodly fever of Texas schoolboy football.

If scholarships were given to attract public-school athletes to the team, it was a direct violation of the rules of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, TAPPS officials say.

Knapp and Northwest Academy have never been cited for violations, but, then again, the coach runs this district's TAPPS football committee.

School officials say they've investigated and found no wrongdoing. Knapp, 42, says he cannot recall the meeting Gobert describes, but he scoffs at any suggestion he broke the rules.

"I don't cheat ... I never said those things. I have never illegally recruited a player to this school," declares Knapp, tears glistening in his eyes. "Amen. End of story."

The coach might like the story to stop here, but Gobert's account is really just the beginning.

Houston Christian, formerly Northwest Academy, is a private school just northwest of Loop 610 on Watonga. It has grades nine through 12 and an enrollment just above 200. Aside from the religious emphasis, it appeals to parents seeking an oasis for their children from the gangs and drugs that many of them, rightly or wrongly, believe permeate nearby suburban public school districts such as Aldine and Cypress Fairbanks.

The atmosphere of the small campus is intimate, and the Christian fellowship palpable. As the 1997-98 yearbook reported, "Several middle school and high school students were saved by the movement of God in both the Fall and Spring Revivals, and all could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit each week." The school boasts a Bible department, with daily devotionals and prayer "in order to spend quality time with God."

As Northwest Academy, the school had close ties to First Baptist Church and its charismatic minister, John Bisagno, who recently completed a three-year stint as chair of the school's board of directors.

After the reorganization last year that created Houston Christian, the school is now moving on a new course of affiliations with a broad range of Protestant churches.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck