In summer 2018, ThisWeek learned a central Ohio football program seemed to have materialized out of thin air.

The Ironmen of Christians of Faith Academy were said to be from a private, online school that had a religious message and powerhouse aspirations.

Yet at the beginning of August, COF Academy did not have a school building, a working website, an identifiable academic structure, an announced home field or a released roster, though the team was scheduled to start playing one of Ohio's most daunting high school football schedules in just a few days.

ThisWeek's Andrew King began researching the school, visiting practices and conducting interviews, but the more he learned, the more the mysteries surrounding the new program persisted.

It became apparent there was more to this story than football -- much more. In the following months, COF Academy was disavowed by its financial-backing institution, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Third District, then the Ohio High School Athletic Association and, finally, the Ohio Department of Education.

Roy Johnson, the head of the program and its self-described "face," had been enigmatic both via phone and in person until late 2018, when he wanted to tell his side, saying he could make the case he and his COF Academy partners, including former Ohio State and NFL defensive lineman Jay Richardson, were the victims, not the villains, in the saga.

King has written four stories to chronicle what he has learned. It is an intricate, tangled tale to tell.

The first installment will recount interviews with all parties, examine the trove of documents obtained by ThisWeek and lay out a timeline of events.

The second will explain why the air of mystery persisted early on, as well as why federal investigators took notice of the program.

The third will explain how tantalizingly close Johnson came to pulling off the COF Academy project.

And the fourth will personalize the true innocents of the tale -- the teenagers caught in the middle.

The stories will be published first on ThisWeekNEWS.com, starting Monday, March 4, and in successive print editions starting March 7.

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nthompson@thisweeknews.com

@TWNeilThompson