Kid Jocks

Would you make your little prince repeat 6th grade if that might help him win the Heisman Trophy?

Ten years ago, Bruce Cook made the hard decision to have his son Ryan repeat the sixth grade. Lots of people, mostly other parents, told Bruce it was the right thing to do—that in the long run, repeating the grade was best for Ryan, even though he was getting straight A's.

"We were horrified," said Cook. "Our son was already the smartest, tallest and most physically mature kid in the sixth grade. We felt it would be detrimental to hold him back because classes wouldn't be challenging enough if he repeated the grade."

"Sure, he's doing well now," the other parents told him, "but if he's this good at this age, imagine how much better he'd be in high school with an extra year of maturity and development on all the other kids in his grade. He'd be a 16-year-old sophomore, performing with an extra year under his belt, and the quicker a kid starts to perform at a high level, the quicker they catch the eye of a college scout."

Soon, Cook says, the whole thing started to make sense.

"Why not?" he said. "There's no harm and it's probably a good thing for a male, who often is not as mature mentally, socially or physically as a female. Anyways, what does a year matter?"

So Bruce Cook transferred Ryan to Carden Hall, a private middle school in Newport Beach, where he believed there'd at least be a different curriculum so that young Ryan wouldn't be left with the shame of being The Kid Who Had to Repeat Sixth Grade. Ryan played basketball and, with an extra year of growth and maturity over the other kids in his class, dominated the court. His Carden Hall team won every game.

When it came time for high school he went to Mater Dei to play basketball and then transferred his sophomore year to Newport Harbor High, where water polo was his sport of choice. As a sophomore he was already playing a significant role on what has traditionally been one of the nation's top prep water polo teams. He went on to become one of the country's standout players, helping his team win a section title and earning a scholarship to USC.

Holding Ryan back, Cook says, "was all very positive."

And, for all of you clucking your tongues and wagging your fingers, it was all very legal, too. It was legal when Bruce Cook did it and it's legal today under the rules of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), mainly because the CIF has precious few rules governing age eligibility in sports. There is, in fact, just one rule regarding age: a student athlete cannot turn 19 before June 15. Though other states have specific rules about redshirting a child—that is, holding him back for athletic purposes—California has none because CIF officials don't see it as a big problem.

No problem? That's news to the private middle schools that are a haven for redshirting kids. This past year, the Parochial Athletic League (PAL) established rules to curtail the practice by limiting athletic eligibility in middle school. Russ Smith, PAL director, said his member schools "don't want to become known as a feeder grounds. We want parents to know they can't do it [hold kids back] in private school."

Despite that, parents complain that the practice is becoming more common. One South County parent, who asked that his name not be used, is threatening to have his congressman look into the practice.

"Ridiculous," said one parent. "A grown man can play high school sports."

Cook says it's not ridiculous at all, but just the way the game has come to be played.

"To those parents who say what I did is unfair, I say tough. Life's not fair. You have to play the game to win. If you want the same advantage, I say hold your kid back, too."

And apparently, more parents—obsessed with making their child a star so as to nab a college athletic scholarship—agree. There are no numbers on the practice, no growth charts, but parents of student athletes say it's as plain as the talk in the stands. Joe Nedza, an Orange County deputy district attorney whose son was a sophomore at Mater Dei, said it's common knowledge among the parents he talks to.

"When I would sit in the stands watching my son's football games, you would hear parents talk about it," Nedza said. "They'd say, 'So-and-so kept their kid back to be more mature so they can get a scholarship.' "

Gary McKnight, Mater Dei athletic director and boys varsity basketball coach, said: ""I think it's [kids being held back] at all high schools. As far as I know, parents are holding their kids back, but CIF has rules. Once you start high school you have four years. We follow the CIF rules. Call them if you have any questions. But I haven't heard of any parents doing this at Mater Dei."

But Nedza says the practice is clear. "Everyone wants a scholarship," he said, "and parents are stopping at nothing."

Including taking advantage of the lack of any age rules and holding their kids back a year during the crucial growth years from 11 to 14. And with college scouts making many of their decisions by the end of a child's junior year of high school, the pressure is even greater for a student athlete to be noticed early on in school and have big sophomore and junior years, when standouts are identified, pursued and rewarded.

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