For Bryan Davis, becoming an NFL wide receiver always has been the goal.
“My plans are to go to a Division I college and play football, then go to the NFL and become a household name in the league,” he said. “I’m very confident I can reach those goals.”
But Davis is 17 and still has to take classes, which don’t come as easily as his performance on the football field, he said.
Throughout middle school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he said, he had “all the athleticism but not the grades,” so he wasn’t allowed to play. But he said he “made a big adjustment” in ninth grade and used “the motivation of football” to improve his grades.
He said he made the E.E. Smith High School team as a freshman and had just one reception – but it was a one-handed touchdown catch.
As a sophomore in 2017, he improved his stats to 444 yards and five touchdowns, earning second-team all-conference honors.
“Plenty of D1 schools came talking to me when they saw my sophomore-year highlights,” he said.
But when Davis, who is 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds per an online recruiting profile, received a call from leaders of an intriguing new football program in Columbus called Christians of Faith Academy, a school that “guaranteed more looks and interest and even offers,” he jumped at the opportunity.
A year later, Davis said, the “main” schools he’s drawn interest from include Clemson, East Carolina and Kentucky, with Penn State and Michigan State in the mix, as well.
But the 2018 season for the COF Academy Ironmen wasn’t an easy one.
Davis, like others who attended COF Academy, had a mixed experience. And though not everyone made it out of the season with a positive experience, Davis said his journey was worth the trouble.
“It was a lot of good things (but) a lot of hard times,” he said. “I didn’t really focus on that. I was too focused on football.”
By the time football season began, it might have been difficult to remember COF Academy’s focus had been on playing an impressive and ambitious football schedule.
The school was launched in a mysterious fashion when its 12-game schedule, featuring the likes of Ohio powers Huber Heights Wayne and Cleveland St. Ignatius, was revealed in summer 2018.
Roy Johnson, the self-described “face” of the program and its leader, went public in July, mere weeks before the football season was set to begin.
He said the school was a private online Christian school tied to the Third District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The plan, he said, was to use a powerhouse football program to give underprivileged and low-income students a shot at higher education.
The school also was going to build a massive campus on 7 acres in northeast Columbus near Easton Town Center, Johnson said.
The school had arranged to use Minnesota-based education company Edmentum and its EdOptions Online Academy for its academic program, and it had planned to hold classes at the AME Church Third District headquarters at 112 Jefferson Ave. in Columbus until the new campus was ready, according to Johnson.
But throughout the season, the school’s on-field activities were overshadowed by off-field concerns.
Before the games began, some other local coaches had suggested COF Academy had been recruiting their players, a violation of Ohio High School Athletic Association rules.
ThisWeek’s first two stories on COF Academy in August focused mostly on how the school’s leaders, namely Johnson, planned to prepare to play football games on short notice when information about COF Academy was difficult to obtain.
By the middle of September, just four games into their schedule, word got out AME Church officials had denied they were associated with the program.
Sometime during the summer, the AME Church Third District had posted on its website, ame3.org, a statement saying Johnson and his Richard Allen Group – what Johnson had called the “economic-development arm of the (AME Church)” that handled a variety of financial and development issues – were acting on their own.
ThisWeek learned of the statement Sept. 18. (The post, which had a direct URL of ame3.org/disclaimer, was removed from the Third District website sometime last fall. ThisWeek retained a screenshot of the statement.)
Attorney Arthur Harmon, who represents the AME Church, amplified the online statement, saying the church never had been contacted by Johnson or COF Academy and saying the church sent a cease-and-desist letter to the school.
However, a number of documents and emails obtained by ThisWeek – both independently and from Johnson – and many interviews with individuals involved in the process indicate otherwise.
These documents and emails were outlined in earlier stories in this series. They suggest the church and its leaders not only were involved with the creation of COF Academy, but they also helped fund the Richard Allen Group and had been working with its representatives for years.
Regardless, the public denial seemed to have a ripple effect.
On Sept. 25, the OHSAA said its representatives could not verify classes were taking place at the AME Church Third District headquarters, and it determined football games played against COF Academy would not count for points to qualify for the state playoffs.
On Oct. 19, the Ohio Department of Education announced it had revoked the school registration for COF Academy, ruling “the school could not be located and student attendance could not be verified.”
On top of that, Lakewood St. Edward near Cleveland and IMG Academy in Florida had canceled their games against COF Academy, so matchups were added against Reigning Sports Academy in Columbus and Cornerstone Christian in San Antonio to maintain a 12-game schedule, according to Johnson.
The team won two games, beating Reigning Sports Academy in Columbus and Birmingham Brother Rice in Michigan, he said.
Meanwhile, instead of living in the dormitories and playing in state-of-the-art facilities, the players were living in hotels, taking their online classes in libraries – including the Southeast branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Groveport, where students signed up for library cards, Johnson said – and practicing in public parks.
The denial also led to a federal investigation by the U.S. Secret Service, according to Johnson.
“The AME Church's denial of affiliation with the academy and Richard Allen Group subsequently led to an investigation and me being contacted by the feds to see if the school was legitimate, if the project was legitimate and if the people who came and donated their time and funds and resources weren't defrauded and that it was a legitimate project,” Johnson said.
According to www.secretservice.gov, special agents investigate financial crimes, such as counterfeiting of currency, false identification, credit- and debit-card fraud, computer fraud, forgery or theft of government checks, bonds or other securities, telecommunications fraud, and certain other crimes affecting federally insured financial institutions.
However, Johnson and Jay Richardson – Johnson’s longtime friend and a former Ohio State University and NFL player who was listed as the athletics director in early documents – both have said they have been notified the investigation is completed.
Other consequences of the denial were more visceral, Johnson said.
“I can recover,” Johnson said. “But the notes left at the house in the mailbox and the spray paint, that’s a little excessive.”
Johnson said he came home one day to find spray-painted messages on his garage door. Other days, he said, people would come “banging on the door” before running off.
He said he talked with police, but no reports were filed.
“And it hurts when you have a 1-and-a-half-year-old at home that doesn’t understand,” he said. “And now his mom is upset.”
Johnson said his players were experiencing harassment, as well. He said some players received threats and other messages.
At the time, he said, police told him to keep a low profile to avoid “copycat behavior,” so he put on a brave face for the students.
“I told the guys, ‘Just keep it quiet.’ We used it as motivation,” he said. “Most of these guys are from really rough neighborhoods. So I told them, ‘You guys shouldn’t be intimidated by text messages. Where y’all are from, people tell you to your face. So don’t worry about a text message.’
“Meanwhile, I’m going inside and praying on my hands and knees that nothing happens.”
Ultimately, nothing advanced beyond threats and minor vandalism, Johnson said.
And through all the turmoil of the program, which is on break and is unlikely to resume, Johnson said, he can’t help but focus on the fact that, with the help of many others, he and other school leaders had managed to succeed at some of their goals.
“The first thing I would do is wake up in the morning and find somebody who could make us lunch,” he said with a laugh. “Who can make us lunch that I know? I just called every day.
“It’s one day, two days, three days, eight days, 12 days, 20 days, 30 days, and you get to the point where you’re like, ‘There’s no way I can wake up in the morning and find somebody else to make us lunch today for 60 kids. There’s no way.’ And every day, somebody agreed. It got really, really amazing.”
And then there were the students caught in the crossfire of COF Academy, the AME Church, the ODE and the OHSAA.
Some, like Damonte Ware, had flown across the country for what they thought was a chance at playing in a high-profile football program.
His mother, Miesha Ware, said she had paid $400 for a flight to send him from Belmont, California, to Columbus.
But when Damonte Ware, a junior, was in Columbus, Miesha Ware said, she was furious about the lack of communication from Johnson and others, and she learned he and other students weren’t taking classes in a classroom, like they had been promised.
“They neglected his education, and they’ve been having them stay in these hotel rooms,” she said. “You promised him this and promised him that and didn’t do any of it.”
By the middle of September, Miesha Ware said, she had given up. She flew her son back home and was out $800 in airfare.
“It’s false advertisement; you’re messing with my son’s life,” she said.
For Andre Peterson and his son, Javan Peterson, the experience was different.
Javan Peterson, 15, said he was weighing his options for his sophomore year and was in the process of enrolling at Reynoldsburg High School when COF Academy officials reached out. The nose guard said their promises of a bigger spotlight and college opportunities were attractive.
“It was my idea to go to COF,” he said. “(My parents) were asking, ‘Javan, do you really want to go there or do you want to stay where you are?’ I wanted to go because I felt like what the team had and the competition I could have on that level, it was better for me to start doing that.”
Andre Peterson, a former youth and high school coach, as well as an ordained minister who belongs to New Birth Christian Ministries in Columbus, thought the plan sounded promising. When he spoke to Johnson and others involved, he said, he offered his help in coaching and other areas.
“I liked the concept of it,” he said. “I’m a former football player (at Youngstown State) and I kind of wanted Javan to get the opportunity to play against some of the best competition – not just in Ohio but around the country. I liked what they showed me; I liked what I was hearing.”
But it didn’t take long for the Petersons to notice something was wrong, they said.
Students were living out of hotels, and Johnson was scrambling to find meals.
Andre Peterson said he approached Johnson about it. When Johnson opened up, Andre Peterson said, he thought he was being honest.
“As me and him talked more and more, he kind of opened up more and more about what was going on and the concerns that he had as far as the financing when the church backed out,” Andre Peterson said.
“You always think, ‘Is somebody trying to hustle you?’ I didn’t feel like it was a hustle.”
So Andre Peterson became more involved.
He said he watched as Johnson, Richardson and others paid for meals from their own pockets when churches weren’t around to donate them.
In the end, he said, he was surprised how successful it was.
“One of the main focuses that I look at in this situation are the young men we had playing and in school,” he said. “I think it took a lot to recognize what was really going on with the church and realizing that Roy felt like he had to do this on his own. It took him reaching out to some people and some churches and some people in the community and some parents that donated their money and their time to make sure kids made it.”
Javan Peterson, who didn’t play football at Eastmoor Academy as a freshman because of his grades, said he is happy with the choice he made.
He said he has continued to take classes online through the Edmentum program arranged by COF Academy and expects to continue taking online classes to graduate.
Javan Peterson said he has been invited to the spring game at the University of Pittsburgh, and he said he has received interest from his father’s alma mater, Youngstown State.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “For it being my first year playing (high school) football, I felt like I got a lot of lessons out of it.”
Despite the struggles that came with COF Academy, Davis said, he would consider his time with the program a good experience, as well.
He also said he took classes regularly, and he has been trying to keep his grades up since returning home to North Carolina.
In the midst of the news swirling around the school, Davis said, it was difficult at times.
“The school being so caught up in the bad light – everyone was saying it wasn’t a real school and (we) had to deal with not knowing what was up with everything,” he said.
But, he said, he also remembers “grilling and rapping with each other and just enjoying ourselves and having a great time” with his teammates on weekends. He sees those moments, along with the college interest he and some of his teammates have garnered, as the real takeaway, he said.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Davis said earning interest from colleges was only part of the positive experience.
“It wasn’t just about the looks,” he said. “It prepared me for being away from home and having to manage money on my own and basically be my own man. So it taught me a little real life, too.”
Johnson and Andre Peterson said a handful of COF Academy players, like Davis and Javan Peterson, are getting looks from college programs, which was the goal all along.
“With the struggles we had – and there were a lot of them – it still worked out for the good for some of these kids,” Andre Peterson said.
Johnson said Cornerstone Christian paid to fly the Ironmen to San Antonio for their game, an experience most would never have been able to have.
“They flew the entire team out to Texas, and we played the game in San Antonio,” he said. “The kids got to go around Cornerstone Christian. … Some of these kids have never left the city, let alone the state.”
Mike Egan, a California-based developer who has 35 years of experience building sports arenas and athletics fields “all over the world” and who had signed on to help build the proposed COF Academy campus, said he has watched from afar and wishes the program’s initial goals could have been met.
“What’s crazy is that there’s still a chance to do something,” he said. “I hate how it’s come out, but the need is still there. There are people like myself who are willing to make it work.”
Jeff Kellam, the owner of Indiana-based construction company Kellam Inc., also was involved during the planning phases and thought he was going to help build the school campus.
He said he left the project in summer 2018 after not being paid, but he wasn’t sure of the exact date.
But, Kellam said, he still worried about the students.
“Anybody I talked to, I said, ‘What about the kids? Has everybody forgotten about the kids? I thought this project was about the kids. What’s going on with all this?’ ” he said. “Everybody forgot about our informal promise to the kids."
For Andre Peterson, the lessons learned from his experience with COF Academy are pushing him and a group of others into a new project.
Bishop Sycamore is, according to is website, bishopsycamore.org, similar to the early days of COF Academy. According to Andre Peterson, it’s a project led by some parents involved with COF Academy who want to give the idea another shot.
“I liked the concept of what Roy was trying to do,” Andre Peterson said. “Me and some of the other parents and some of the people that were involved decided to continue that.”
According to both men, Johnson only has answered some questions for the new group and helped set up its website. Johnson confirmed his name is attached to the domain because he helped establish the site, but he said his attorneys have told him he “can’t really be involved” – and he doesn’t want to be.
Few details about Bishop Sycamore are available.
Andre Peterson said stakeholders are meeting to determine a direction soon, and more information will be shared this spring.
He said the school is planning to begin classes as early as this summer, and Javan Peterson is expected to be part of the first class of students and will play for the school’s football team.
“Every issue that COF had, we’re doing what’s necessary to not have that issue,” Andre Peterson said. “One of the biggest things is we’re not relying on one entity to supply us with our funding. We’ll have a school building. We’ll have teachers. It’ll still be online with Edmentum, but some of those things are going to be different. That’s how much I believe in that vision.”
Kellam and Egan said it’s no surprise there’s still interest in the project.
Both men called the original COF Academy plan admirable.
“There are people in this world who could write out a check for $12 million or $1 million or $500,000,” Kellam said. “I still don’t get why no one has stepped up and said, ‘Here, let’s keep it going. Here’s a check.’ It was, in my opinion, an excellent plan.”
Egan said he is not sure how the COF Academy saga will end, and he knows chances are slim the school could be saved.
But however it is resolved, with a new school or the continuation of the program, Egan said, he hopes those involved can find some closure.
“I don’t know what’s going to come out of it,” he said. “But I hope that there will be some type of curing for people.”
More than anything, Johnson said, he is tired.
He said he is not sure where he’ll go from here, though his next decision likely will be whether to file a lawsuit against the AME Church.
Johnson and Richardson are defendants in two cases accusing them of unpaid loans for $100,000. Multiple businesses and other private individuals are threatening lawsuits of their own against Johnson, due to accusations of unpaid bills for services, he said.
Johnson said he hopes the lawsuit he and his attorneys are assembling could clear his debts and his name.
But, he told ThisWeek, he still hasn’t filed the suit because he still hopes the AME Church will change its position and he wants to give Frank M. Reid III, the new Third District bishop, "a chance to make things right."
The previous bishop, McKinley Young, died Jan. 16. Young was the local leader of the AME Church when the church publicly denied a relationship with COF Academy last fall; he did not return calls requesting comment.
All the AME Church officials ThisWeek has contacted have denied it has had any relationship with Johnson, Richardson or COF Academy.
When contacted March 6, Harmon said he had not read ThisWeek’s coverage and had no further comment. He said he still is acting as a spokesman for the Third District.
An AME Church representative previously declined to take a message for Reid, said he and other church leaders would not answer questions for this story and referred all questions to Harmon.
ThisWeek has been unable to contact the Rev. Taylor Thompson, an AME Church pastor and assistant district accountant, since a Jan. 28 interview.
According to Velma Wise, who answers phone calls at the church office and spoke to ThisWeek on March 6, Reid and Thompson continue to decline to comment.
Third District accountant Floyd Alexander also could not be reached for comment for this story, but ThisWeek has left a message for him.
In the meantime, Johnson said, he is trying to look back on what he and others were able to accomplish rather than focus on the difficulties.
“At the time, it’s day by day just trying to make it through the day, one step at a time,” he said. “But it’s when you look back and get to look at the view from climbing the mountain that’s most important. It was almost a miracle how we did it.”