When Derek Sparks arrived in Southern California last summer from a small Texas town, few anticipated the impact the 15-year-old running back would make in his first football season at Banning High.
Perhaps only Jerome Sparks, Derek’s uncle and legal guardian, realized the potential of his 6-foot, 195-pound nephew, whom he persuaded to leave home for a new challenge out West.
“After I had traveled around the country and played sports in a lot of places,” said Jerome, a former minor league baseball player, “I knew that California was the sports capital. I thought a thoroughbred would pick up a certain smell in the air, a certain kind of breeze that would make him much better. I thought it would make him glow.”
Derek was indeed a beacon for Banning last fall, leading the Pilots to the L.A. City Section 4-A championship game by rushing for 1,394 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was an All-City selection and was chosen the top sophomore in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
“The best fullback in the City,” raved Banning Coach Joe Dominguez, who compared Sparks to USC fullback and former Pilot star Leroy Holt.
But what appeared to be a perfect marriage between athlete and school has abruptly ended.
In a move that caught nearly everyone at Banning by surprise, Sparks has transferred from the Wilmington school known for its prowess in football to Montclair Prep, a small, private Van Nuys school. He enrolled at the start of the spring semester two weeks ago.
Jerome Sparks cited a fear of gang activity in Wilmington and the rigorous academic environment at Montclair Prep for changing schools.
“Walking on the (Montclair) campus gave me a feeling of Texas,” he said. “The way the school is, you get that country feeling. It’s not closed in and chained up. . . . I felt Derek needed to be in a different situation.”
Derek’s mother, June, who lives in Wharton, Tex., grew concerned for her son’s safety at Banning because of reported shootings in the Wilmington area, Jerome said. He added that a shooting occurred in the Harbor College parking lot after a game with Washington High last season.
“We didn’t want to keep the boy in an area where there are gangs,” Jerome said. “His mother wasn’t comfortable with that. She wanted to bring him home (to Texas), but we couldn’t let her do that after what he did last season.”
Derek lived with his uncle in a Wilmington apartment while at Banning. Jerome said he gave up the apartment Feb. 3, three days before the start of the spring semester at Banning. They are now living in Southwest Los Angeles near Inglewood.
Rumors that Sparks had transferred spread at Banning last week. But school officials, including Dominguez, said they were not informed by the Sparks family.
Derek said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he left.
“I think Coach Dominguez clearly saw what was going on, the gang-banging and stuff,” Derek said. “There were a couple of incidents where we were at practice and there was a shooting. It was off campus, but real close. I don’t think you can go to class and concentrate on your grades with that type of thing happening.
“I feel much better now. I can go to school and concentrate about nothing but my grades, which is important. Because if you don’t have the grades, you don’t have anything. I can tell the change. I had fair grades at Banning. At my school in Texas, I had really good grades.”
Dominguez, who wasn’t aware that Sparks was unhappy at Banning, said the transfer is another example of a prep athlete looking for a bigger, better deal, a la Perry Klein, the all-City quarterback who has attended Palisades, Carson and Santa Monica high schools in the past year.
“It just doesn’t sit well with me,” Dominguez said. “When you move to an area, you go to that school. When you start with a program, you stay with that program. I believe in loyalty. The incident in the last year with Perry Klein has made a farce of the system. I think the way our school district handled that situation opened up a can of worms. What’s to prevent every player from doing it?
“I think it’s getting to be comical. The way things are going in the last year or two, you’re going to have to offer coupons or something to keep a kid in school.”
Some might consider the transfer unusual. Banning, along with Carson, stands at the pinnacle of L.A. City football. The Pilots have won eight 4-A titles since 1976, including six in a row from 1976 to ’81.
Montclair Prep competes in Division IX, the lowest level in the Southern Section. The Mounties were 6-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs last year.
But Montclair Prep boasts a strong athletic tradition and includes among its alumni running back Rich Swinton and wide receiver Tim Stallworth of Washington State, former Stanford football and baseball standout Toi Cook and Reggie Smith Jr., son of the former Dodger.
Eric Sparks, another of Derek’s uncles, cited this as an example that his nephew will not fall out of the limelight at a smaller school.
“When Oklahoma, USC, UCLA or Notre Dame come to recruit, they don’t recruit Banning or Montclair Prep, they recruit the individual,” he said. “Banning has a name, but Montclair Prep will have a name. It’s more important he gets an education and becomes a productive member of society than it is if he hangs out at Banning and plays football.”
The family wanted Derek to attend a school that stresses academics, and Montclair Prep fills the bill. Derek was an honor student from seventh to ninth grade in Texas.
Derek said the intimate atmosphere at Montclair Prep, where his classes average about 10 students, is a far cry from the classrooms at Banning.
“With 30 or 35 students, I don’t think you can learn,” he said. “You can’t communicate with the teacher at all. I’ve experienced that at Banning. I’m not trying to put Banning down, but I feel I made the right choice.”
When reminded that Banning produced one the nation’s top scholar/football players this year in offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, a 6-7, 275-pound prep All-American who signed with Stanford, Derek replied: “Some people can adapt to that situation. Bob (Whitfield) has lived in that area all of his life. But I came out for six months and it kind of bothered me.”
Derek said Banning was not his first choice when he came to live with his uncle Jerome last summer. He first considered attending Loyola near downtown Los Angeles and Crespi in Encino, but Catholic schools, but could not enroll in time for the fall semester.
Montclair Prep football Coach George Giannini couldn’t be happier. He said Derek will probably start at fullback for the Mounties next season, in front of highly regarded tailback Michael Jones, a 6-3, 205-pound junior. That will give the Mounties one of the most formidable backfields in Division IX, or on any level.
“We’re delighted to have a kid like this,” Giannini said. “If he was a star running back from Banning with a bad attitude, we just wouldn’t want him.”
Giannini said he has never seen Derek play, either in person or on film.
Jerome Sparks said the family is pitching in to pay Derek’s tuition at Montclair Prep, which is about $5,200 a year. He said they are receiving no financial aid at this time.
It will be money well spent, he said, if Derek can escape the trap he has seen other former prep athletes fall into.
“I chose him as a role model for the rest of the kids in his family and the kids in his community (in Texas),” Jerome said. “I got tired of coming to Texas and seeing boys graduate from school and sitting around under shade trees playing dominoes and drinking beer.
“We want to make Derek polished so he’ll shine like a diamond.”