CLEARWATER — After pulverizing Canadian youth league quarterbacks with ease, JeJuan Sparks needed a challenge.
To improve, Sparks needed to face players who were bigger, stronger — better.
The only way to do that, Sparks and his father figured, was to come to America.
Trouble was, roadblocks kept him from staying — and thriving — in the United States.
Sparks attended a prep school in Buffalo three years ago but academic struggles forced him back home. He tried going to another school in New York but was turned away at the border because he did not have an F1 (student) visa.
Bouncing from schools and countries meant Sparks missed valuable time in the classroom and on the field.
“People were telling me I wouldn’t be able to graduate high school, that I should pick up a trade, stuff like that,” Sparks said.
Sparks started questioning his future in the sport.
“JeJuan really became depressed,” said his father, Jason. “He wondered whether he should hang up the cleats and move on.”
Two years ago, everything changed.
A friend of Jason’s told him about Clearwater Academy, which has become a haven for international players.
JeJuan enrolled last year. Soon after, he became a starter. Not only was the 6-foot-2, 327-pound defensive tackle playing stateside, he was doing it in Florida, which is known for churning out college prospects.
His performance (44 tackles and two sacks as a junior) got the attention of colleges and recruiting services.
To turn interest into offers, JeJuan needed to produce academically, too. He now has a 2.7 grade-point average and qualifying test score.
“JeJuan has made a massive transformation,” Clearwater Academy coach Jesse Chinchar said. “He’s really changed his life. I think he’s always had talent, but he dramatically changed his work habits and most importantly he’s improved tremendously in the classroom.”
After spring practice ended, JeJuan had offers from 16 schools, including Syracuse, Toledo and USF. In June, he ended his recruitment by committing to Indiana, the same school where former Clearwater Academy teammates Sio Nofoagatoto’a and Kervens Bonhomme are now playing as freshmen.
“When I first came to the states it didn’t work out at all,” JeJuan said. “The school I was at just wasn’t the right fit then. There was a whole bunch of ups and downs before I came here. I wasn’t even sure if I was ever going to play football again. But through all the adversity I plan to continue my journey and make it to where I want to eventually get.”