Unsanctioned football league gave prospects a chance to show their skills. Was it worth it?
On a Saturday morning in early June, as Southern California’s summer shutdown dragged on amid spiking cases of COVID-19, a collection of some of the region’s top high school football athletes gathered on a red turf field in Corona, desperate for an opportunity to be seen.
Months had passed since they’d played anything resembling football. A robust summer circuit ground to a halt after the state’s stay-at-home order, denying many of them crucial recruiting exposure. Camps were canceled, seven-on-seven seasons shut down. The California Interscholastic Federation would postpone high school football until January and pause offseason workouts indefinitely.
A handful of local stars had left the state, seeking opportunities in places with fewer restrictions. Some hired private coaches to conduct clandestine workouts. For 2021 graduates still seeking scholarships, the outlook seemed especially dire.
So when Winner Circle Athletics, a Corona charter school and athletic training facility, sent out invitations advertising a “Top 100 So Cal Showcase,” it felt like a lifeline. Skepticism about the event and concern about safety was far exceeded by the exuberance of the invitees, all pining for a chance to show their skills to college recruiters watching over a YouTube stream.
Tuerk collapsed and died June 20, Father’s Day weekend, while hiking on the Bell View trail in Los Pinos Peak in Orange County.
Under state and Riverside County rules, youth sports of any kind wouldn’t be allowed for another two months, and even then only with strict guidelines and proper social distancing. But with the stakes so high, event organizers across the nation have tested the boundaries of local ordinances. Some have ignored them entirely, holding rogue events to capitalize on the vacuum in the youth sports scene.
Few in California acted as boldly as Winner Circle, which coaxed more than 100 local prospects, along with others from Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii, to its bold red-and-black-painted campus just off the 91 Freeway in Corona for the West Coast’s first summer football recruiting event.
The presence of Korey Foreman, the Corona Centennial defensive end who is the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2021, and Domani Jackson, a top 2022 cornerback from Santa Ana Mater Dei, raised the profile of the showcase, which was widely promoted over social media.
Participating players said they were aware of the perils presented by the novel coronavirus but were told by organizers that “that’s the risk we’re willing to take” for the chance at a scholarship, according to Noah Fifita, a quarterback from Servite High.
“It’s kind of just like football,” Fifita said. “You might get hurt. It’s a risk you have to take to be out there.”
In order to take part, players were required to “sign a lot of waivers,” Fifita’s father, Les, said. A waiver used for a subsequent football league run by Winner Circle requested that players release the league from “liability for accidental injury or illness.”
Fifita and a few others performed well enough to secure scholarship offers. But with the potential for reward came risk.
In-person accounts, along with videos posted from the showcase by Winner Circle, show that few, if any, safety protocols were followed. Attendees stood in tight groups, shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for drills. Family members and other observers were packed along an outside fence as they watched from collapsible chairs.
“Nobody had masks on,” said Xavier Ward, a 2021 quarterback from Eastvale Roosevelt High. “There wasn’t really any social distancing. We were in lines next to each other. By the grace of God, nobody got sick.”
For Winner Circle and its founder, former USC and NFL player Jordan Campbell, the event emboldened open defiance of state and local ordinances that extended deep into the summer, even as Riverside County officials stepped in and legal action escalated to a restraining order.
Two weeks later, Winner Circle held a similar camp at its 75,000-square-foot property. Billed for “Rising Stars,” the camp listed 248 attendees, according to Top100Combines.com, a website created by Winner Circle. By August, Campbell had organized his own full-pad 11-on-11 football league, Hard Knocks, which included four full teams and cost players $250 to enter. In between, many players became regulars working out at Winner Circle.
Reached via text message the week after his Hard Knocks league concluded, Campbell, who played linebacker for USC from 2007 to 2009, suggested that “the past is gone and not relevant anymore.”
“We had camps for kids and got them scholarships,” Campbell said in a text. “That’s the story Brutha.”
According to a settlement agreement filed in Riverside County Superior Court and obtained by The Times, as well as other court documents, Campbell told a different story to Riverside County health officials, to whom he denied he was holding events.
After his initial response to The Times via text, Campbell refused to comment on the county’s legal actions, other than to say that the case against him was dropped and the county was “not informed correctly.”
But court documents — including the settlement agreement, declarations from Riverside County counsel and an ex parte application for a temporary restraining order — detail futile efforts by the county to stop the organization from staging events.
Those efforts began July 14, when, after receiving “multiple complaints,” county officials sent an advisory letter to Winner Circle alerting them that “holding or hosting public gatherings including youth sporting events, games, trainings, conditioning and showcases were not permitted at that time.” The letter threatened fines of up to $1,000 per day and potential imprisonment.
A day later, a cease-and-desist letter arrived at the Winner Circle facility. According to a Riverside County public health spokesperson, such letters deter violators “nine times out of 10.”
Not Winner Circle. A second cease-and-desist letter was served July 23, requiring Campbell to conform to the county’s request by the next day. Again, there was no response. A final call was made to Winner Circle on July 29, alerting them that a temporary restraining order would be filed the next day, according to a July 30 declaration from Kirsten Shea, Riverside County’s deputy counsel.
Her declaration was one of five filed by Riverside County officials in an effort to obtain a temporary restraining order. In it, Shea noted that the call to Winner Circle was answered by Adam Johnson, who told her the organization was “a wellness center only and it does not engage in youth sports or training.”
When she told Johnson that the organization’s Twitter account indicated otherwise, Shea noted in her declaration that Johnson said Winner Circle’s attorney would be in touch.
A judge granted the restraining order on July 31, citing an “immediate threat to public health and safety based upon the violation of State law.”
That was enough to garner the attention of Campbell, who, according to the settlement agreement, denied to the court that any youth sports activities took place at the time of either cease-and-desist letter. He then asserted that he was not given proper notice by Riverside County to dispute allegations in the restraining order.
Videos shared on Winner Circle’s Twitter account show training continued at the facility through at least July 29. The same day the restraining order was granted, July 31, Winner Circle posted an information sheet on Facebook for its Hard Knocks league, declaring it CIF- and NCAA-compliant and urging players to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
As Campbell continued his events, the county opted not to press its concerns.
A joint settlement between Campbell and Riverside County was filed Aug. 11, “solely for the purpose of avoiding costly litigation on disputed claims,” according to the agreement. The county would not comment on its decision to settle.
In the document, Campbell agreed to “cease committing further violations of State law” as it pertains to youth sports events. He did not acknowledge previous violations.
Winner Circle continued publicizing its Hard Knocks camp on social media, declaring it “the most talent ever assembled on 1 field in California.”
Campbell signed the settlement agreement Sept. 8. By then, as the county dismissed his case, Winner Circle’s four-team, full-contact league was in full swing.
The Hard Knocks league lasted for six weeks, into late September, apparently unbeknown to Riverside County. Four weeks of game film was posted on the video service Hudl, while other clips circulated on social media in hopes of drawing the attention of college coaches otherwise unable to evaluate recruits from the region this offseason.
It was a significant operation, complete with custom uniforms and an Adidas sponsorship. Campbell built his own football field on the outskirts of Corona for purposes of the league, which he said was “one of the best events the state has ever seen.”
When brought to the attention of public health officials, a spokesperson with Riverside County public health said that holding organized games still constituted a violation of county safety ordinances. Because the event was held at a location different than the original subject property listed in the agreement, it would not qualify as a breach of the initial settlement. Instead, it could trigger a new complaint.
With fitness centers and school weight rooms closed, the Argott family’s backyard became the training area for their three football playing sons.
By early last month, Winner Circle had moved its Hard Knocks league games to Aquinas High, out of Riverside’s jurisdiction, across county lines in San Bernardino County. In an email exchange with The Times, Chris Barrows, the principal at Aquinas, said Winner Circle had submitted documentation to use the school’s field for “small coaching clinics that operated within CDC and county guidelines.”
When Barrows found that full-contact youth football games were taking place, he said he confronted a member of the organization, who apologized and promised to “address it with their families.” The next week, the games returned.
“We trusted the organization and the individuals involved and were basically misled by them,” Barrows said in an email.
As Winner Circle defied safety guidelines, the exposure it provided had a payoff.
Servite’s Fifita, who stands just under 5 feet 10, worried that his height would discourage Power Five programs from offering a scholarship — especially with limited recent tape to study. But after a successful showing at the showcase in June and in the Hard Knocks league in August and September, the quarterback secured a scholarship offer from California on Sept. 17.
“I think Winner Circle gave me the opportunity to get some of that notice and attention,” Fifita said.
How much impact it really had on scholarship decisions is up for debate. An assistant coach at California not authorized to speak publicly because of NCAA rules said that Fifita’s tape from Winner Circle events had no bearing on his scholarship offer.
Eastvale Roosevelt’s Ward was in a similar position, right on the cusp of a breakthrough in his recruitment. An impressive performance June 6 was enough for Washington State “to finally make them pull the trigger,” he said. Ward committed five days later.
For Winner Circle, those ends were enough to justify the means.
“They said it couldn’t happen,” Kyle Turley, a former NFL lineman and Winner Circle coach, wrote on Twitter this week, days after he used the social media platform to tout marijuana as a “cure for all corona viruses” and refer to COVID-19 as a #scamdemic.
“They tried to shut us down, 840 ballers said this … 30+ D1 offers not one case of covid.”
Riverside County guidelines now allow for youth sports to continue in small groups, as long as social distancing of at least six feet is possible. However, competitions remain banned, and Riverside County public health officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser warned Aug. 5 that “these guidelines should not be looked at as a return to pre-pandemic participation.”
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Most Southern California high school football programs remain either shut down or severely limited by state and local guidelines. Practices aren’t allowed until Dec. 14. The delay has been frustrating for local coaches.
“You try to make the best of it and keep their interest,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said, “but you can’t do team stuff. You can’t do seven-on-seven.”
Said Mission Viejo coach Chad Johnson: “You literally can’t do anything.”
Johnson said he was thankful Winner Circle helped keep some top players in the state. Danny Hernandez, a private quarterbacks coach, pointed to the exposure 2021 prospects were able to receive that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Coaches also noted that Winner Circle was far from the only youth sports operation in Southern California operating without consequence through the pandemic.
No players are publicly known to have contracted COVID-19 from Winner Circle’s events this summer. Nor have any cases been traced to families or coaches involved. As far as Les Fifita is concerned, that was vindication enough.
“Nobody knows what the truth is out there about how serious this is,” Fifita said. “Obviously, if someone would’ve gotten sick the whole program would’ve been shut down. But no one got sick over the six weeks.
“It went great.”
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