VALDOSTA, Ga. (WTXL) — Rocked by a Georgia High School Association investigation, the Valdosta High School Wildcats are looking forward to the future. For those at the center of the investigation, it's not going to be that easy.
With a future in football uncertain at this time, the parents of Ty'li Lewis and Tajh Sanders are sharing their story and how they plan to keep fighting to get their sons back on the field.
Alison Posey: "Did any of you take any money, any gifts, utilities paid for, by the Touchdown Club, Rush Propst, Mike Nelson or anybody here at Valdosta High School?"
Parents: "No. No. Nobody took anything. We were never approached by anybody to offer us anything."
For Shafreda Hall and Tiajuana and Tim Sanders, it's been an emotional, frustrating last few weeks.
"I was in there crying because it's a shame you're doing this to these kids," said Hall.
"They didn't have any sympathy," said Tim Sanders.
The families are accused of accepting money and other incentives to transfer their sons to Valdosta High School to play football. In a letter to the high school, the Georgia High School Association wrote that coach Rush Propst and other Valdosta High School booster members were behind it all.
"We showed our monthly what we paid for rent every month since we've been over here. We showed them everything," said Tiajuana Sanders.
Tiajuana and Tim are the parents of Tajh Sanders. Shafreda is the mother of Ty'li Lewis. Both played for Propst at Colquitt County their freshman seasons. Their parents say they saw Propst's move to Valdosta as a chance to play for Propst again.
Now, they're not playing for anyone. Following the GHSA investigation, both players and two others have been banned from playing sports for GHSA schools for a year, a punishment the families say is not justified.
"The first week this happened, he didn't want to go to school. He didn't want to go to the weightlifting room, because the other kids were there," said Hall.
The investigation into the team started after a recording was leaked of a conversation between Propst and the executive director of the touchdown club, Michael Nelson. In an interview with ESPN, Nelson confirmed that he secretly recorded the conversation, but denies leaking it.
In the recording, Propst can be heard telling Nelson, "we have to have some funny money." Nelson asks how much money and Propst says "I don't know who's coming and what they need. They might not ask for anything. I don't advertise it."
Propst is also heard mentioning Tajh Sanders name, saying “his family hadn’t asked for a dime.” That recording was part of the evidence that GHSA used to make its ruling against the school and players.
ABC 27 asked the organization what other evidence was used in the decision making and GHSA Executive Director Dr. Robin Hines declined further comment.
The Sanders said the GHSA came to their home in Valdosta twice, in June 2020 and in November.
"It was Bonafide. We had to prove that before we could even, before our kids could even start school," said Tiajuana Sanders. "How'd you come up with what you have now?"
After the November visit, the organization ruled that Tajh's move was not legitimate. The family said they never gave them a clear reason why.
"We sat there for three hours talking about it and it took them less than two minutes to deny," said Tiajuana Sanders.
In addition to players being banned from participating in any sport for a year, Valdosta High School has to pay $7,500 in fines. The football program also cannot participate in any post-season games. The school district filed two appeals with GHSA, both were denied.
The Sanders and Hall feel their kids have been caught in the middle of something bigger than them.
"To me, it feels like a vendetta," said Tiajuana Sanders.
"It made us feel like our side of the story didn't matter," said Tim Sanders.
"That is what I feel is going on with the GHSA, it's not about us," said Hall. "We're just collateral damage."
Which is why they don't plan to stop fighting for their kids. Instead, both families are weighing their options to take legal action against the GHSA. Eric Johnson is the Sanders family attorney. He said they believe the students’ due process was violated. They also said the decision to ban them from a year of play has caused intentional emotional distress.
"They don't understand the pain, the suffering, the emotional part of this because it's not happening to them," said Hall. "It's happening to us. This is hard to have to go through every day."
ABC 27 reached out to Propst about the GHSA allegations and that recording. In a statement he released to ABC 27, he said "the truth will come out. I hope the process allows for these student-athletes to be proven innocent and reinstated."
During the GHSA investigation, Propst was put on leave from Valdosta. The board of education later voted to not renew his contract.