Dennis Stallings wishes he could be there, but won’t be able to visit his old college football stadium at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana this weekend.
That’s too bad because the former all-state linebacker might be able to give the East St. Louis Flyers one heck of a pregame speech before they take on Plainfield North in the Class 7A state title game Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Stallings not only played for the Flyers, he starred at linebacker and tight end on the 1989 and 1991 state football championship teams that still rank among the top teams the metro-east has ever seen.
“You have the pride factor first and foremost,” said Stalling, now 42 and an assistant vice president with Fifth Third Bank living near Nashville, Tenn. “When you put on that blue helmet, it’s a gladiator sport. We were gladiators at that time.
“Once you put on that helmet, it was time to go to work. There’s nothing but gladiators in East St. Louis.”
Stallings knows. He grew up near the rough Virginia Park area near Bond Avenue and still bleeds Flyers orange and blue.
He recalled home games at old Parsons Field near Jones Park, with its towering covered grandstand and rough field. The stark surroundings and sparse grass that dotted the field shocked more than a few suburban Chicago teams who ventured south to play the Flyers in the playoffs.
“With any athlete, with the support that we had in our community, it felt absolutely wonderful,” Stallings said. “Just coming out of the tunnel people were cheering you on, it was a great feeling. East Saint, East Boogie, whatever they call it ... it’s family.”
Former East St. Louis All-American receiver Homer Bush, now 44, is part of the Flyers’ vast football family, too. He loved to catch passes near the sidelines at Parsons and frustrate defenders with his blazing speed while slicing and dicing his way into the end zone.
Just coming out of the tunnel people were cheering you on, it was a great feeling. East Saint, East Boogie, whatever they call it ... it’s family.
“It was home for us. This was all we knew,” Bush said. “I didn’t care what other people’s facilities were like. It’s about running routes, catching passes, making moves and making tackles. The venue never meant anything to me.”
Bush played in the major leagues with the New York Yankees, Toronto and Florida from 1997 to 2004 and was a career .285 hitter in 409 games. Stallings starred at Illinois and was in the NFL for two seasons.
Bush was part of the Yankees 1998 World Series championship team and Stallings was on the Tennessee Titans squad that lost to the St. Louis Rams in the 2000 Super Bowl.
But ask either one of them about favorite athletic memories and what helped shape their future lives and it comes back to one place — playing football at East St. Louis Senior High for Hall of Fame coach Bob Shannon in the “City of Champions.”
“That was deep rooted in me,” said Bush, whose cousin Andre Mixon was the Flyers’ starting quarterback. “I used to be a young kid on the sidelines watching him perform. That winning tradition became a goal for me. I wanted some of that. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Bush finally got his wish, then lit up opposing defenses for two seasons. He helped the Flyers win a state title as a junior in 1989, then piled up 70 catches for 1,431 yards and 22 touchdowns in 1990 as a senior for a team that was 12-1 and lost in the state semifinals.
That was before spread offenses and quarterbacks throwing on every other down. The Flyers also boasted an awesome running game then led by Chris Moore and featured another talented receiver in Kenneth Dunn.
“I’d been dreaming of it since I was a little youngster and to get the opportunity to do it it was almost like ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” recalled Bush, whose three East Side teams were a combined 39-2. “Teams were gunning for us, too. Our game was the game marked on their calendars every year as the team to beat. It was to the point where going undefeated was the rallying cry. There was no losing throughout the course of the year.”
City of Champions
Losing seasons rarely happen in East St. Louis — and it’s been that way dating back to 1925 when the program began. The Flyers own more wins than any team in state history with a 760-199-36 all-time record.
Their 44-game win streak from 1983-86 is the sixth-longest in the state and their seven state titles are the most by any metro-east team.
From 1983 to 1985 they ran the table, going 40-0 with three straight Class 6A state championships. Most teams at that time had little chance of beating the Flyers, so just scoring a touchdown or two would have to suffice.
When I was playing, you may have a gang member here and a gang member there. But when we stepped on that field we all had one common goal, which was to destroy our opponent. When we’re together, we’re family.
Flyers football. The family. The names change, but the tradition lives on. Flyers assistant coach Terry Hawthorne was an All-American receiver who helped the team to its last state title in 2008.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” former Flyers and University of Illinois All-American linebacker Dana Howard told the BND previously. “The experience that I got from East St. Louis Senior was greater than I’m sure any other school in the state would ever give you.”
“That’s my foundation,” Stallings said. “It means everything, it’s my upbringing. Being able to be associated with Arthur Sargent, Ronnie Cameron, some of those guys like that ... it’s a blessing.
“I would say to this day we get into arguments on what team was the best and I still feel like that 1991 team was the best team out there because we were well balanced. We did it all.”
The 1989 team would argue Stallings on that point. In 1989, East Side scored 90 touchdowns and 615 points while allowing 139. The Flyers ran for 3,558 yards that season and passed for 2,190 yards.
And don’t expect any Flyers who played from 1983 to 1985 to avoid this argument since the 1985 team was voted national champions. The program keeps regenerating itself from season to season, from decade to decade.
Even with a declining enrollment and many players going both ways, the Flyers have found ways to keep winning.
“It all starts with the very first practice of the year, with the goal of being champions,” said Bush, a published author whose latest book is “Hitting Low in the Zone: A New Baseball Paradigm.” “All the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears and all the sacrifices. You’ve got to have determination, perseverance and highs and lows just in one season to get to the championship.”
Stallings said Flyers football cut through all demographics and helped unite the school and the community in a way few other things could.
“When I was playing, you may have a gang member here and a gang member there,” he said. “ But when we stepped on that field we all had one common goal, which was to destroy our opponent. When we’re together, we’re family.”
Stallings and Bush both have sons in high school.
Homer Bush Jr. is a freshman running back on the varsity at Southlake Carroll High in Texas as well as a standout baseball player already drawing comparisons to his famous father. Dennis Stallings Jr. is a junior basketball player already drawing Division I interest at White’s Creek High near Nashville, Tenn.
Bush’s father said Texas high school football matches the passion he saw back in Illinois, but his son’s team also plays in a $10 million stadium.
“Every now and then I pull out the video from my high school days and he has an idea what the atmosphere was like,” Homer Bush said. “I think there’s a sense of respect. Considering baseball is what I’m known for, he’s heard the stories about the state football records many a time.”
East St. Louis Football State Champions
- 1979: 10-0, Class 5A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 1983: 13-0, Class 6A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 1984: 13-0, Class 6A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 1985: 14-0, Class 6A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 1989: 14-0, Class 6A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 1991: 13-1, Class 6A (Coach Bob Shannon)
- 2008: 13-1, Class 7A (Coach Darren Sunkett)
East St. Louis Flyers in the NFL
- Jack Morton 1945-47
- Al Randolph 1966-74
- Shelby Jordan 1975-86
- Kellen Winslow 1979-87 (Pro Football Hall of Fame)
- Cleveland Crosby 1982
- Victor Scott 1984-88
- Kerry Glenn 1985-92
- Bryan Cox 1991-2002
- James Harris 1993-99
- Dana Howard 1995-96
- Dennis Stallings 1997-98
- Damien Nash 2005-06
- Terry Hawthorne 2013
(Source: Pro Football Reference)