'I feel duped': Montreal mother angry after son's U.S. football dreams dashed by recruiters
Innavage Consulting woos young football players to go to prep school in U.S., but some parents feel burned
They came selling a dream.
Sign with our football recruiting company, and we'll help get your teenager into an American prep school.
"It was an opportunity to get a great education," said Rebecca. To protect her son David's identity, CBC agreed not to use their real names.
Rebecca paid the company, Innavage Consulting, nearly $10,000 — money she'd set aside for her son's university studies.
It was a sacrifice, but she thought it was a sound investment in his future. For that amount, David was supposed to get football training and school tutoring in Canada for several months, then a few years' tuition at a U.S. prep school.
If he kept his grades up, Innavage promised to market his talents to NCAA colleges, in the hopes of securing a football scholarship.
Instead, less than half a year after he left for school in California, Rebecca's money is gone, and David is back in Canada, struggling to get the credits he needs here in the Quebec school system so he doesn't lose his year.
"I am angry," she said. "I feel duped."
Justin Senior success story
One of their recruits was Vaudreuil-Dorion's Justin Senior, who played on a scholarship at Mississippi State University. The offensive lineman was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks last year.
Rebecca is one of the parents who bought into that success story.
Innavage told her it had arranged for David to go to Carnegie Riverside School, in California, last September. At the last minute, it fell through.
Innavage reassured her it was still working with some other schools, and a few weeks later, David had a full scholarship to Ribét Academy in Los Angeles.
There was a catch: by then, all the homestays were taken, so Hunte told her he'd go to L.A. and take care of her son, as well as three other boys also on contract with Innavage.
They stayed at Airbnbs, before moving into a rented house. Rebecca said the house was a long commute from the school and sparsely furnished: air mattresses for beds and no table at which to eat or do homework.
But Rebecca doesn't remember it that way. She says she was warned there might be extra costs, but it was presented as paying for extras such as cable and wifi.
At first, she said Innavage asked for about $300 extra a month. However, by mid-October, Rebecca says Innavage told her L.A. was more expensive than anticipated.
Hunte sent her a homestay budget, explaining she'd have to pay an additional $1,000 US a month for the school year.
"I know exactly how much money comes into this house, and I know how much my wallet can sustain," said Rebecca. "If you had mentioned to me that there is an extra $8,000 US, I would have said, 'No thank you, we'll wait for the next opportunity."
She and at least one other family refused to pay, arguing it was not part of the original deal. Hunte told them they'd have to make other arrangements and left before Christmas.
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After the holidays, three of the boys returned to California and stayed with a family temporarily. Rebecca frantically searched for a permanent option so David could finish out the school year.
"It was horrible. We tried every avenue," said Rebecca, who says she was told by the school Innavage should have negotiated a scholarship that included room and board.
Out of options, David and the other boys all returned home last month.
Rebecca asked Innavage for a refund, but in return got a registered letter detailing the bill her son had run up. Worse, it told her she still owes them money
"I was fuming," she said.
She says David is racked with guilt at the lost money, knowing his mother spent it on his dream.
'He gives out false hope'
Treyvon Grant knows all too well what Rebecca's son is going through.
Grant, a nephew of retired boxer Otis Grant, was one of Innavage's earliest recruits in 2012 when he was playing for the LaSalle Warriors.
Grant says his family knew Scott, Innavage's co-founder, as well as Andre Clarke, who Grant says looks after the company's technical training. Both men were LaSalle residents who'd coached for the Warriors.
"A lot of people knew them, so that made us trust them even more," Grant said.
But at the last moment, he and his friends were told it hadn't worked out. Innavage offered them a football academy in Toronto instead, which Grant's mother couldn't accept.
He and his mother tried to salvage the scholarship he'd turned down, but it was too late.
"I wanted to cry, said Grant. "It was heartbreaking to see everything I had worked for go down the drain."
Innavage paid his mom back, but he never played tackle football again.
He struggled academically for years, still reeling from the lost opportunity.
He has since watched Innavage's Scott try to woo other players, including his younger brother and his cousin.
"We would warn people he gives out false hope; you have to be careful," said Grant.
Pitching black community support
One of the people Grant warned was Kenny Stanislaus.
Scott approached Stanislaus's son, Matthew, last year. Matthew hadn't played football in a few years but was interested.
Stanislaus admits Innavage won him over.
Innavage told him people in the black community needed to do more to support each other.
"How do you go wrong with that? It got me. It got many of us," said Stanislaus.
Innavage told the family Matthew would re-do Grade 11 in the U.S. and then go on to Grade 12 there, giving him an additional year of exposure and time to improve his grades. They told Matthew not to take his Grade 11 English exam in Montreal so he wouldn't graduate.
"I figured we had nothing to lose," said Stanislaus, who signed a "Platinum" package with Innavage. The entire cost, for two years, was nearly $9,000. "They said many times, if it didn't work out, they'd give me back my money."
As September approached, Stanislaus said Innavage told him Carnegie Riverside had rejected Matthew's application because of his marks. It offered to market him to another school, but Stanislaus refused and asked for his money back.
Stanislaus said Innavage eventually agreed to return $4,500 of the $5,000 he had already paid. But later, he got a registered letter saying they were keeping his money and now wanted more from him.
No record of applications
Stanislaus's anger deepened when he heard some of the boys Matthew had trained with, who he believed had similar marks, were on their way to California to attend Carnegie Riverside. Suspicious, Stanislaus contacted the school.
He said it had no record of Matthew's application. The school said it didn't work with any sports agencies in Canada.
Another parent CBC spoke to who had a cancelled contract with Innavage also discovered the school had never heard of her son.
Carnegie Riverside encouraged him to apply directly. Not only did he get in, he qualified for financial assistance, ending up paying only $125 US a month — a total of about $1,000 a year for tuition and his homestay.
Recruiters asked to steer clear
The LaSalle Minor Football Association tries to dissuade parents from signing on with Innavage.
When it tried luring away some of LaSalle's better players back in 2012, the association's president, Larry Burns, confronted Innavage's trainer, Andre Clarke.
"He thought it was a great opportunity to get black kids out of LaSalle and to get them better chances," recalls Burns.
"I know of one particular dad who went out and remortgaged his house. He was not in a position to pay this kind of money," said Burns.
LaSalle has tried to limit Innavage's contact with its players when the team has practices and games.
"We can ask them not to go on the field and talk to our players," he said.
The North Shore Football Association told CBC that it's done the same.
Innavage wanted to do an interview, but it requested questions ahead of time and wanted to see our footage before it aired. That is not CBC's policy.
"There are always two sides to a story," Hunte, Innavage's co-founder, told CBC in an email, in response to interview requests.
"We run a legitimate company, and at times you may run into unsatisfied customers. You heard the concerns of a selective few."
In an email, Hunte said Innavage has many happy customers.
Brian Smith, who attended Boston University on an American football scholarship and is now the vice-president of the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education, sits on Innavage's board of directors.
As a board member, he said he does not oversee day-to-day client interactions and declined to comment on the allegations.
However, he said Innavage is doing "a lot of great work."
"I have full confidence in what they are doing," Smith said, when CBC contacted him by phone.
Apply to schools directly, says admissions director
CBC also spoke to an official at Carnegie Riverside, the California high school, who said she had never heard of Innavage.
Elizabeth Tumbelekis, the school's director of admissions, says it is not normal for students to be waiting until the last minute to find out if they are accepted. Typically, once a student applies, he should receive a response within 48 hours, she says.
She was sad some students appear to have been misled. She encourages students to apply to schools directly rather than through a third party.
"The more middlemen that seem to be in the picture, the less legit it is," said Tumbelekis.
Ribét Academy, the school in Los Angeles, did confirm that four Canadian teens had been accepted at the school last September and that Hunte was their guardian. The headmaster said parents should be aware of the costs and that tuition reduction is available.
While Matthew Stanislaus's friends moved on to CEGEP, Matthew had to take adult education classes this fall and winter to get his high school diploma.
"I was kind of sad, and it's embarrassing," said Matthew.
Based on how things turned out for her son, Rebecca has advice for any family thinking of signing with Innavage.
"I would say, 'Run.'"