Rhyheem Samuels spent the first three years of his high school career at East St. Louis, working hard and hoping for his chance to lead the eight-time football state champions Flyers.
The quarterback got a brief look, completing one-of-two pass attempts for 29 yards in the Flyers 2015 season that was cut short by the East St. Louis School District 189 Teachers Strike.
Nearly two years later, Samuels will get his chance to lead an offense and also make a little history in his hometown of Madison.
For the first time since 1988, high school football returns to Madison High School. Under the leadership of coach Mike Hill, the Trojans will open the new era on Aug. 26 when they travel to Rockford to take on Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School.
Samuels and has 20 teammates can’t wait.
“It’s different here ... very different and in a lot of ways,” Samuels said following a recent practice. “From the environment, to the attitudes, the talent level, Madison is way different from East St. Louis. It’s a tough adjustment but I think I can get through it.
“Why Madison? It’s my hometown. I wanted to come back and give back to the community and be part of making history. We’ve got talent on this team. We can win some games and make a playoff run. That’s why we’re here.”
An assistant on the staff of East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett for eight years, Hill was an assistant at Cahokia a year ago before landing the Trojans job earlier this summer. His assistants include his little brother and former East St. Louis head coach Terry Hill and former NFL defensive back Johnnie Poe.
“It’s been blessful, here... blessful. I think God has put myself, my brothers and Johnnie here for a reason — to get Madison back, to get the community back,’’ Hill said. “I was hired about a month ago and as soon as I got the work to go forward with what I do, we’ve been out here trying to get ready.
“We were already behind when I got here because we didn’t have the kids in the weight room this summer. But we’re out here every day working these kids hard to get them ready. They’re all great kids. I just wish we had more than 21 kids in the program.’’
The Illinois High School Association lists Madison’s school enrollment at 169 students. The Trojans are in Class 1A.
Hill also has players of all skill levels in the program. Of the 21 players, only a little over half of them have played organized football at some level. Some, like Samuels and junior wide receiver/safety Kameron Williams have played at the high school level.
Williams is one of a handful of players who competed on the Madison/Metro East Lutheran co-op team the past two years. The players from Madison traveled by bus to Edwardsville each day after school for practice.
We were already behind when I got here because we didn’t have the kids in the weight room this summer. But we’re out here every day working these kids hard to get them ready. They’re all great kids.
Terry Hill, Madison assistant coach
In the two years of the co-op the team finished 0-18. Metro-East Lutheran, also a 1A program, will continue without the help of players from Madison. The split teams will face off in the second week of the season, Sept. 2, in Madison.
“It was tough because as a player I was always thinking what I could have done to change the outcome,” Williams said. “It was also difficult leaving school everyday, getting home at 7-8 p.m., eating and then trying to find time for homework. Those were long days.
“The attitude has been great. We all grew up together and we’re all excited about being part of the ‘new’ Madison football program. The goal is to win the state championship.”
The Trojans didn’t win a state title in their first football tenure from 1979-88. But they did have some success. Despite a 28-60 record, Madison finished 6-2 in 1985 and qualified for the Class 3A playoffs two years later in 1987 when it finished 6-4 under coach Don Smith.
“The goal is to win right now,’’ Hill said. “We (the coaching staff) all come from programs which have had great success. That’s the type of attitude and mentality we’re trying to get across to these kids.
“One of things I learned from coach Sunk (Darren Sunkett) was that you have to play fast. That’s what we’re trying to do here. But we’re going to be fine. We’re in for the long haul here. I’m hoping to be here for many years and we want to make this program something that the citizens of Madison can be proud of and support.’’
Two obstacles standing in the Trojans path are lack of numbers and experience as well as a lack of equipment.
Why Madison? It’s my hometown. I wanted to come back and give back to the community and be part of making history. We’ve got talent on this team. We can win some games and make a playoff run. That’s why we’re here.
Rhyheem Samuels, Madison quarterback
“When the school district decided to go ahead with this there wasn’t a lot of time. We don’t have a lot of equipment in terms of things like (blocking) sleds and dummies. We’re hoping somebody will donate and help us out,’’ Hill said. “But we’re getting by and making due. If we have to put a couple of 2x4’s together that’s what we’ll do.
“Several of these kids haven’t played organized football and so we’re doing a lot of teaching and working on fundamentals. The kids who have played, we’re pushing pretty hard, running them a lot, because we’re going to need them to play on both sides of the football.’’
The rebirth of the football team is just one oft three major changes made within the Madison High School athletic department in the past month. Hometown hero Maurice Baker was recently named as the new boys basketball coach, while former East St. Louis basketball coach Phillip Gilbert is the new athletic director.
As for Samuels and the rest of the 2017 Trojans football team the future is now.
“This means a lot to be to home again. These are guys I grew up with. People I’ve known my whole life,” Samuels said. “I’m excited to be here. We’re going to put Madison football back on the map.”