Homeschool Athletes Are Finding a Home at Ave Maria University

Ave currently has, not one or two, but 64 homeschool athletes on scholarship.

The homeschool athletes of Ave Maria University
The homeschool athletes of Ave Maria University (photo: Mariano Lacayo)

In the past four decades, it has been exciting to witness so many homeschooling barriers fall. When I began homeschooling back in the early 1980s, homeschooling was illegal in some states. It was widely dismissed as a credible academic option — many colleges refused to accept homeschooled students. These hurdles have been overcome. Until recently, however, one significant barrier remained: college athletics. But a Catholic university in southwest Florida is changing all that.

Though some homeschool athletes have gone on to achieve great success in college, they have proven more exception than rule. And not because they weren’t capable; rather, it was because they weren’t given much of a chance.

The struggle often begins at the high school level, where homeschool athletes are often not permitted to play on local teams. (Even though parents fund the local public school system through property taxes, their children are often not allowed on the fields.) And even if they can find a local private school team that allows them to play, there can be a reticence to play homeschoolers over the school’s enrolled students.

When it comes time for college, many schools won’t give homeschool athletes a serious look. To that point, some homeschool athletes have not even played on organized teams, so the thought of an athletic scholarship is largely out of the question.

But Ave Maria University is changing the game.

The school’s athletic department actively recruits homeschool athletes — a fact witnessed by its rosters. Ave currently has, not one or two, but 64 homeschool athletes on scholarship. In fact, of its 19 varsity sports, 18 have a least one homeschooler on the team. (One of our daughters has a basketball scholarship and another daughter has a swimming scholarship.)

Joe Patterson serves as both head football coach and as the school’s athletic director. I recently sat down with Coach Patterson (“Coach Pat,” as the players call him) and asked him how the homeschool students stood out at Ave. He gave me an unexpected and wonderful answer, saying that they don’t stand out — they fit right into the programs and teams.

Part of that feeling of fitting in is due to the Ave approach to sports, which echoes what these students learned at home. Coach Patterson talks about the importance of the process, explaining, “The process is tied to virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Belief and trust of those in charge; trust in those around you. Open yourself to the grace that God will provide you the tools to be excellent, and believe that it’s possible. Charity is to love our teammates, love our school, love our country, and love our God, so that we then have a chance to truly love ourselves. These things cannot be compromised.”

Homeschoolers might also feel at home with Patterson’s focus on family. At the end of each practice, the coach leads the team in an Our Father, a prayer to Our Lady of Victory, and breaks the huddle on the word “FAMILY.”

Speaking of family, placekicker Brendan Clark (my nephew) just had a rather amazing football season. Brendan, Seton Home Study School alum, made the record books in 2021, setting AMU’s single season scoring record for a kicker. What makes this even more impressive is that Brendan had never played organized football before playing at Ave. Brendan relates, “I am playing a sport that I picked up as a 21-year-old for the first time.”

Brendan didn’t realize it at the time, but his soccer career growing up was preparing him for a college kicking career. And so was homeschooling — as Brendan says, “Homeschooling gives you individual motivation because you are in a class of one.”

Though soccer helped with accuracy and strength, it is the Ave coaches whom Brendan credits with his success. He says, “It was the details of teaching. Good teachers, good parents, good coaches—teach detail.”

After a one-point loss this year, Coach Patterson asked each member to think about what each of them could do better. Brendan’s resolution: “I can trust better.” He began to view success as something borne of faith: “When I run toward the kick, I am running toward a ball I can’t see. But I have faith that it will be there. I need to trust in the snapper, the holder, and me.” That trust made much of the difference.

Brendan explains, “Football is a family sport. When I come in for a kick during a game, all the focus is on the kicker, but it should be on all 11 players. They announce my name, but they should announce 11 names. I am one-eleventh of what’s happening there. There are 11 jobs on the field.”

That’s the sort of team unity — of family — that Ave is seeking to produce.

Pope St. John Paul II once observed that sports — when performed properly — “contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.” It is a great joy to see homeschoolers be part of that process.

Not so long ago, homeschool athletes were denied the chance to play college sports. But thanks to Ave Maria University, and the vision of those in its athletic departments, they are competing in football, cross-country, swimming, basketball and plenty of other varsity sports. Homeschool athletes are not just playing college sports — they are excelling. At Ave Maria, athletes are not simply breaking barriers — they are splitting the uprights.