High School Football

A single moment in ‘89 Blocks’ that set the course of a young athlete’s life

Jimmy Simmons

The documentary that chronicled the East St. Louis Flyers’ run at an eighth Illinois football championship was worth every second of national airtime Sunday.

Fox Sports Film’s “89 Blocks” started with the East St. Louis teachers strike that brought a premature end to the Flyers’ season in 2015 and to the careers of their senior players. It ended with East Side’s triumph over Plainfield North in the class 7A championship game.

In between, the film touched on the trials and tribulations the team had to overcome and which remind the rest of us that, while sports matter so little in the grand scheme, the journey to victory can be so profound.

For the most part, “89 Blocks” didn’t deliver any revelatory moments that those of us back in the metro-east didn’t already know, despite the unfettered access the documentary crew was afforded over the course of the year.

Except for one.

A single, powerful scene at once changed the course of the film, defined the wisdom of a coach, and captured a moment that altered the rest of a young athlete’s life.

Late in September, All-American wide receiver Jeff Thomas fell off the face of the earth. He was declared academically ineligible for a game against Alton, then stopped showing up for classes and practice.

Thomas had a rough upbringing, a point head coach Darren Sunkett had raised in nonspecific terms even before the documentary crew arrived. Thomas himself became a father by the time he turned 17.

Sunkett allows his players no excuses, but his concern was plain. The last thing he wanted was to see an athlete waste his gifts and lose all the opportunities they provide.

Still, Thomas had missed two games and for more than three weeks ignored phone calls and texts, even from his teammates. His selfishness weighed on the coaching staff, his teammates and, indeed, an otherwise depressed community that views its Flyers as a source of pride.

When Thomas finally surfaced, the coach rallied the Flyers’ senior leadership, who were understandably angry. Sunkett placed the entire matter in their hands.

Jimmy Simmons

Led by quarterback Reyondous Estes, the players retreated to the locker room, telling the film crew it wasn’t welcome. The cameras trailed Sunkett in moments later to capture a seminal moment for the film, for the Flyers’ season, and for the rest of Jeff Thomas’ life.

A contrite Thomas apologized, telling the room with his eyes on the floor “I’ve not been Jeff all year.” Speaking for the team, Estes accepted and assured Thomas “it’s a new start, a new season.”

Sunkett knew full well the weight of what he left to the judgement of those teenagers. He grew up like they did in the Camden, New Jersey inner city. Football was his ticket to an education and a career, and he wants the same for all his players.

Their conversation was about more than letting Thomas continue to wear the blue and orange uniform. It was a referendum on his future.

“Everybody here says they want out of East St. Louis, right?” Sunkett told them. “If you’re not putting the right foot forward, how are you going to get it done? What do you want to do? Do you want to utilize your gift?”

You know the story from here.

The Flyers won the state championship and Thomas, despite missing three games total, was among St. Louis area leaders in catches and receiving yards. Sunkett called Thomas’ leaping grab of a Hail Mary pass against Glenbard North in the state quarterfinal game a defining moment in East St. Louis football’s considerable history.

A consensus four-star recruit, Thomas announced in February he would cash his ticket out of East St. Louis to the University of Miami. He has since forced his way into action as a true freshman, catching 14 passes for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the No.7-ranked Hurricanes.

The end of this story remains to be written. Thomas has more than three years of college left to prove he’s worth the second chance his teammates afforded him.

If you believe the final words he spoke in the documentary, you have to believe the ending will be a happy one.

“I know there’s more than what these 89 blocks can give,” he said.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman