Two things set this year's football season at one Arkansas school apart from most of those of the past decade: wins and a wedding.
Documents obtained from the Mountain Pine School District through a Freedom of Information Act request trace one transfer student’s path to sports eligibility through a marriage certificate and a move to the home of the bride's parents.
Those filings match other records for Dafavioun Haywood, a 17-year-old running back who has scored more than a third of Mountain Pine High School's touchdowns so far in the Red Devils' first winning season since 2009.
Haywood did not show up on the school’s roster until the second game of the 2017 season, a day after the player referenced in the school district documents wedded a 17-year-old girl from Mountain Pine, a Garland County town about 11 miles northwest of Hot Springs.
Records show that Bobby Applegate, the Mountain Pine School District superintendent, initially requested sports eligibility for a transfer student from Hot Springs in January. The Arkansas Activities Association handbook states that students are only eligible to play sports in the district where their parents live, unless the school can prove one of the handbook’s hardship exceptions.
In a letter to Lance Taylor, executive director of the association, Applegate wrote that the student had previously lived in the Mountain Pine School District before attending Lake Hamilton High School but was now back living with his grandmother in Mountain Pine.
“His mother works constantly to try and make ends meet,” Applegate wrote. “The student was not recruited, but moved back to improve his conditions.”
Court documents show Connie Conway was the grandmother and legal guardian of the 17-year-old student in question. An online listing for the petition of guardianship names Connie Haywood. It wasn't clear if the two names referred to the same person.
In a letter dated Jan. 24, Taylor rejected the application for the student’s eligibility based on a lack of documentation.
Months after that, Applegate wrote back to the oversight organization, requesting a hardship exception for a student who “was living outside our district and due to certain circumstances he has married a student in our district and has moved into the house.” The request was first reported by KATV.
Applegate later sent a marriage license dated Aug. 30 and a Sept. 7 marriage certificate for two 17-year-olds: one from Hot Springs and the other from Mountain Pine.
Garland County clerk Sarah Smith confirmed the marriage license and certificate Applegate sent match those for two 17-year-olds: Dafavioun Haywood of Hot Springs and Kaleigh Walker of Mountain Pine.
A Facebook profile for Haywood lists him as in a relationship with Walker in a post from June 26. Haywood did not respond to a request for comment from an Arkansas Online reporter.
Applegate also sent Taylor a statement from the city water clerk, saying that Walker’s family had lived in their Mountain Pine home since 2000.
An email to Applegate from Derrick Walker sent Sept. 7 states that two teens had married due to “certain circumstances” and would be living in his Mountain Pine home.
The note was sent from a district email address for Jennifer Walker, who is listed online as a member of the Mountain Pine school board.
Neither the Walkers nor Haywood's grandmother responded to a request for comment from an Arkansas Online reporter.
Applegate said in an interview that he did not inquire about the reasons the two 17-year-olds got married.
“That’s not any of my business,” he said. “[The parents] came to me, said [the teens] were getting married and wanted the AAA paperwork filled out,” Applegate said.
He said the boy wanted to come back to Mountain Pine to play football with his brother, who had been attending the school for several years.
Taylor approved the application Sept. 7, citing a rule from the association’s handbook that provides an exception to the eligibility rules: “the student is married and living with a spouse ... who had an established domicile in the district one year prior to the marriage.”
Using this exception “rarely happens,” Taylor said in an interview. In his 17 years with the association, this is the second time this rule has been invoked.
Taylor said he doesn't think the union had anything to do with athletic eligibility. Instead, he said, there were other “circumstances” for why the teens “had to get married.” The association’s rules do not take into account the reason for the marriage, he said.
“I don’t have to know why,” Taylor said. “Anything that can help keep a young person in school, that’s what we want.”
A day after Taylor approved the application noting the teens had married, Haywood scored five touchdowns in a victory over Cutter-Morning Star High School on Sept. 8.
This came one week after the first game of the season, when Mountain Pine lost 35-0 to Jessieville High School.
The Red Devils have not been to the playoffs since 2010, when they lost in the first round to Mineral Springs High School, statistics show. The team netted zero wins in four out of the previous five seasons, according to online records.
The comeback from from 2016’s zero-win season has surpassed expectations and made Mountain Pine the hottest team in Garland County, the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record reported in September.
Haywood was initially added to the school’s roster May 14, when rosters are typically updated following the spring football season, but he does not appear on the list of players in the 2017 season’s first game.
This season, Haywood has reportedly rushed for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games and scored 18 of the team’s 45 touchdowns.
The Class 2A Region 7 team's season record is 7-2 as of Thursday.
Philip Oliver, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law, said two teens getting married purely for sports eligibility is so unlikely that he doubted it would be illegal. It is probably not a real possibility, he added.
“Rules exist to prohibit recruiting of players from one district to another. Recruiting taking the form of ‘marry one of our girls’ ... it seems remote,” Oliver said. “Even those small towns where football is everything, marriage is even more.”