There was an edge of sadness in the stands among Signal Mountain High School football fans even as the Eagles triumphed over Chattanooga Christian 76-35 in their second-to-last game of the season.
The team was stripped of its previous six wins by the TSSAA following an investigation into the eligibility status of double-starter Tim McClendon, a transfer student from LFO attending the school through a hardship waiver issued by the Hamilton County Department of Education.
The TSSAA originally cleared McClendon to participate in school athletics, but reversed that decision in an Oct. 7 ruling. Allegations brought to the TSSAA's attention in September and confirmed in the ensuing investigation claimed McClendon's residence was in Brainerd, not inside the the SMHS zone as stated in paperwork filed by school administrators.
"The guy that turned them in did nothing but hurt kids," said David Knox, whose son is a senior playing on the SMHS team. "It's just another case of bad sportsmanship by a disgruntled adult, which hurt a bunch of kids who have worked really hard to prove their medal."
"These other kids don't deserve what they're getting ... especially these poor seniors," said Eagles fan Lisa Cooley.
Her husband Terry Cooley pointed out that in addition to being denied their six victories, seniors on the team are also missing out on the chance to be in the playoffs and be seen by college recruiters.
"They're taking away kids' chances at scholarships because of paperwork," he said. "Not everyone who goes to school up here has money."
The Cooleys 'daughter is zoned for Red Bank High School, but like McClendon attends SMHS through a hardship waiver from HCDE. Lisa Cooley said the waivers are difficult to obtain, especially to attend SMHS, and those who receive them must do very well academically as well as demonstrate valid reasons for their need to attend a particular school.
TSSAA Assistant Executive Director Bernard Childress said students granted a hardship waiver by HCDE are still subject to the organization's transfer rules.
"School systems all across our state grant waivers for kids to attend school out of zone for various reasons," said Childress. "That does not make them eligible to participate in athletics."
"I think it's unfair, because a lot of teams do that," said Chris Abernathy, corner/wide receiver for SMHS. "If everyone else does it then we should be able to do it too."
SMHS is appealing the TSSAA ruling at a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 20. The team hopes to gain back at least some of its wins on the grounds that the TSSAA learned of the allegations in September, but did not inform the school until two games and two victories later, on Oct. 6.
"I feel sorry for Tim," said Cody Harvey, SMHS alum and member of last year's championship team. "He's just trying to make the most of his education, and they stripped him of that. He's a good kid trying to do right."
"I think that whether or not we have the wins, we're still an awesome team," said SMHS junior Abby Phillips. "We really won all the games, and we love Tim!"
Many questioned the TSSAA's timing.
"They should have been notified earlier to be fair," said Harvey.
"I wonder why it took them so long to figure it out," said SMHS parent and Eagles fan Scott Schiel. "They should have figured it out on week one when the paperwork was turned in rather than now."