High School Football

Flyers’ Thomas was best when the games mattered most

East St. Louis's Jeff Thomas (4) runs down field with a touchdown reception during the third quarter of the IHSA Class 7A high school championship football game against Plainfield North, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. East St. Louis defeated Plainfield North 26-13.
East St. Louis's Jeff Thomas (4) runs down field with a touchdown reception during the third quarter of the IHSA Class 7A high school championship football game against Plainfield North, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. East St. Louis defeated Plainfield North 26-13. AP

There are three things that make East St. Louis senior wide receiver Jeff Thomas special in the eyes of college football recruiters.

The first among them could be printed on his business cards — blazing, breakaway speed.

“That’s just God-given ability,” said Thomas, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.

He also possesses an astute football sense that makes him a weapon anywhere on the field.

“Jeff has all the intangibles, and that makes him versatile,” said his head coach, Darren Sunkett. “He can play split, he can play slot, he can play whatever because he’s so smart. When you’ve got that type of versatility, it makes you that much more dangerous as a wide receiver.”

The speed and versatility alone may have been enough to earn Thomas the BND Large-School Offensive Player of the Year honors, which is voted on by area coaches.

But the third thing on Thomas’ considerable resume — his dependability when the games mattered most — helped make the Flyers the Illinois Class 7A state champions. In the context of a monster season in which Thomas caught a metro-east-best 58 passes for 1,198 yards, this attribute is less obvious.

But consider his splits between the regular season and the postseason:

In the seven regular-season games he played, the East Side senior averaged 4.6 catches and 88 yards per game, with a total of seven touchdowns. But in five playoff games, he averaged 5.2 catches for 115 yards and found the end zone seven more times. 

Those five games may never have mattered more to the Flyers than they did in 2016.

After losing out on their final five games and 16th-straight playoff berth last year due to a teacher’s strike, Thomas and his teammates made a pledge to each other that they would restore East St. Louis as the “City of Champions.” They did just that, winning 14 games without defeat on their way to the program’s eighth state title.

“We didn’t get to play all our games last year, and that was a big motivating factor for us,” said Thomas, also named an Under Armour All-American. “We set out from the first day of practice to win a state championship, and that’s what we did. I wanted to do whatever I had to do to let me boys know I had their back because I knew they had my back. That was our motivation.”

Thomas saved the season a couple times along the way, including a catch against Glenbard North in the second round of the playoffs that Sunkett called “one of the greatest moments in East St. Louis Flyers history.”

East St. Louis was on the Glenbard North 23-yard line, trailing 28-26 with 9.6 seconds left. Senior quarterback Reyondous Estes scrambled 15 yards backward and threw off-balance toward Thomas in the end zone.

Thomas had fumbled twice earlier in the game, both times leading to a Glenbard North touchdowns. He made amends by pulling down the “Hail Mary” pass to win the game.

“I just kept telling him ‘Come on, Jeff, you owe us one,’” Sunkett said on the field at Clyde C. Jordan Stadium after the game. “He said ‘I’m going to get you one’ ... I love that kid.”

Thomas added: “I really wanted to do something big.”

Thomas’s three greatest on-field attributes — his speed, versatility and dependability in the clutch — typically work in unison, as they did during the Flyers’ championship victory over Plainfield North at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

The Flyers led 12-0 midway through the third quarter, when Estes threw a pass down the middle of the field that looked like it could have been intended for either Thomas or teammate James Knight.

Thomas — who was moved inside to the slot in order to pair him one-on-one with the Plainfield safety — beat the coverage with a quick burst at the end of his route and reached the ball ahead of Knight. The catch finished off a 63-yard scoring play that all but iced the victory for the East Side.

“You never know what you’re going to get out of Jeff when he runs a route,” Estes said. “I’m looking at the defense and in the peripheral vision can see there’s a lot on Jeff. I think he did two cuts and lost them, so I felt like all I had to do was put the ball in an open area, and he would do what it is that he does.

“Big time players make big time plays in big time games.”

Thomas finished the game and capped his high school career with 105 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

According to 24/7sports.com, Thomas is the 49th best recruit in the nation, No. 8 at his position and No. 2 in Illinois. He also cracked the ESPN 300 at No. 88 overall and No. 14 wide receiver.

Among the 10 NCAA Division I programs that have made offers are Missouri, Michigan, Texas A&M and Auburn, though it had been presumed that he would follow Estes to Missouri.

The day the Flyers clinched their eighth state championship, Illinois and Alabama were the front runners to ink Thomas. His position on that front hasn’t changed.

“I’m just taking my time to be sure I make the decision that’s best for me,” he said.

Coach of the Year

The near-unanimous choice as BND Large-School Football Coach of the Year voting by area coaches was East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett.

Sunkett guided the Flyers to a 14-0 record, No. 1 ranking and their second state championship during his tenure. It was the eighth overall state title by the Flyers, who featured speed, strength and playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman

Belleville News-Democrat Large-School

Football Players of the Year

2016 (Offense) - Jeff Thomas, East St. Louis

2016 (Defense) - A.J. Epenesa, Edwardsville

2015 - Drew Millas, Belleville East; Adam Nelson, Triad

2014 - Dan Marinko, Edwardsville; Terry Beckner Jr., East St. Louis

2013 - Dan Marinko, Edwardsville

2012 - Darius Mosely, O’Fallon; Pierre Gee-Tucker, Belleville West

2011 - Ejay Johnson, O’Fallon

2010 - Keante Minor, East St. Louis

2009 - Courtney Molton, East St. Louis

2008 - Terry Hawthorne, East St. Louis

2007 - Jason Ford, Althoff

2006 - Jason Ford, Althoff

2005 - E.J. Jones, Edwardsville

2004 - Shane McBride, Triad; Daniel Moore, O’Fallon

2003 - Julius Denzmore, East St. Louis

2002 - Milan Woodard, Edwardsville

2001 - Travanti Hill, Cahokia; Tyler Yates, Triad

2000 - Damien Nash, East St. Louis

1999 - Joe Bevis, Edwardsville

1998 - Tony Patterson, Belleville East

1997 - Byron Gettis, Cahokia

1996 - Jimmie Dougherty, Edwardsville