High School Football

These two metro-east football stars get a chance to shine on the biggest stage

East St. Louis senior Jeff Thomas will play in the Under Armour All-America Game at noon Sunday in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised on ESPN. Edwardsville senior A.J. Epenesa will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at noon Jan. 7 on NBC.
East St. Louis senior Jeff Thomas will play in the Under Armour All-America Game at noon Sunday in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised on ESPN. Edwardsville senior A.J. Epenesa will play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl at noon Jan. 7 on NBC. News-Democrat

East St. Louis football coach Darren Sunkett still remembers the look on Terry Beckner Jr.’s face when the Flyers’ star and future University of Missouri lineman arrived in Florida for the Under Armour All-America Game.

“There were hundreds of kids greeting him at the airport wanting his autograph,” said Sunkett, who will make his third coaching appearance at the Under Armour All-America Game on Sunday in Orlando, Fla., with Flyers All-American receiver Jeff Thomas ready to make his debut. “For Terry, it was like being a movie star just to witness that. It just makes you smile to see your kids have the opportunity to experience something like that, too.”

Thomas will get his chance Sunday as the game, now in its 10th anniversary, will be carried live on ESPN at noon from Orlando, Fla.

The first Under Armour All-America game included future NFL Pro Bowl receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Since then, numerous NFL players took some of their first steps onto a bigger stage in this event.

Some of the top senior recruits in the country will be competing, including more than 20 players headed to the Southeastern Conference. Players arrive Tuesday and participate in numerous activities, including practice sessions, prior to the game.

Edwardsville High All-American defensive end and University of Iowa recruit A.J. Epenesa was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. That game will be carried live on NBC at noon on Jan. 7.

You just look at those two guys and for anybody that aspires to play in these kind of games, those are the kind of guys they look for.

East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett on Jeff Thomas and A.J. Epenesa

“You can only play in one and there’s a list of 3,400 player they choose from,” Sunkett said. “Just to be part of that top 300 and to be flown in to these great cities is amazing. You get to tour the city, you’re accommodated with everything you need and it’s really like the first bowl game experience for these guys.

“You just look at those two guys and for anybody that aspires to play in these kind of games, those are the kind of guys they look for.”

Best of the best

Being chosen for one of these prestigious games — the other is the Semper Fidelis All-American Program sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps — is an elite honor.

“I’m sure all the kids in the area definitely aspire to play in one of those games,” Sunkett said. “It’s not easy, it takes a lot of hard work and takes a lot of consistency throughout your whole career. You can’t be one of those one-and-done guys, you have to do it on a consistent level over two or three years as a starter.

“You put the numbers up and you show out on the field, show out at the camps these guys have nation-wide and the scouts from these game will definitely find you.”

Epenesa was the Belleville News-Democrat Large-School Defensive Player of the Year, while Thomas won the BND Offensive Player of the Year honor.

Sunkett said Beckner and current Flyers assistant coach Terry Hawthorne played in the Under Armour All-America game, while former Flyers Kraig Appleton and Glenn Faulkner played in the U.S. Army All-American Game. Former East St. Louis linebacker Kyron Watson played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Game.

Thomas, who is still considering several schools including Illinois and Louisville, was a big reason the Flyers won their area-record eighth state football championship this season.

The community on Monday celebrated the East St. Louis Senior High School football team after it won the IHSA Class 7A state football championship. The Flyers on Saturday defeated Plainfield North 26-13 at the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadi

He had 58 catches for 1,198 yards and 15 touchdowns as a receiver, then added 49 tackles and four interceptions as a defensive back. He was a first-team All-Area pick at both positions.

He reminds you of Willie Mays when he played baseball. He tracks the football better than any player I’ve ever coached. You put it in his vicinity and he’s going to track that ball and go get it.

Flyers coach Darren Sunkett on Jeff Thomas

“He reminds you of Willie Mays when he played baseball,” Sunkett said, comparing Thomas to the MLB Hall of Fame center fielder. “He tracks the football better than any player I’ve ever coached. You put it in his vicinity and he’s going to track that ball and go get it.”

Sunkett talked about Thomas’ skills that set him apart from other players.

“Jeff definitely has a special skill set,” Sunkett said. “It’s his intelligence, he’s one of the smartest football players that I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He’s a guy who reads defenses on the fly and if you put him on the defensive side of the ball, he’s just that instinctive defensively.

“He’s a very explosive kid and that’s one of his biggest assets, just how quick he’s in and out of his breaks. Once he decides to go one way he’s 100 miles per hour out of his break. It’s like he never throttles down.”

“Unblockable”

Sunkett also gave high praise to Epenesa, who will play not only in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7 but also the inaugural Polynesian Bowl on Jan. 21 at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii.

A high school All-American in two sports and all-state in a third, Edwardsville High School's A.J. Epenesa has as much impact on the playing field as his family and Samoan heritage have had on him.

“When that kid wants to play and really straps his chin strap on, he’s unblockable,” Sunkett said. “He’s definitely the best defensive lineman who we played against. There was no one on our team that could block him consistently — and we have some pretty good guys up front, so that tells you how good A.J. is.

“When he decides he wants to turn it on, there’s no one in the country that can stop him.”

Sunkett, who will coach linebackers in the game, appreciates the chance to be around so many elite-level coaches and players.

“It’s a great experience for not only the players, but also the coaches,” he said. “It’s a great environment to be around. You’re talking about having an opportunity to coach the 90 best football players in the country and then you have a coaching staff assembled of some of the best NFL coaches and also the top high school coaches from across the country.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat

  Comments