Zero and three.
Everyone was talking about how the Edwardsville football team was off to its worst start since 1991.
Kendall Abdur-Rahman and his Tigers’ teammates certainly heard it.
They went out and did something about it.
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“It seemed like we were all over the news,” said Abdur-Rahman. “All the people were talking down on us, but we knew we just had to keep working and that we had the talent. ... It was just the little things. That’s the difference between winning and losing games.”
To be fair, none of those losses came against slouches — Week 1 opponent Naperville North made the Class 8A playoffs and finished 6-4, CBC went 13-1 and won the Class 6 state championship in Missouri, and East St. Louis went 10-2 and reached the Class 7A quarterfinals.
The Tigers rolled from there, winning their next nine games in a row before their season ended loss to Loyola Academy in the Class 8A semifinals.
For the junior quarterback’s major role and leadership in helping the Tigers achieve that impressive turnaround, Abdur-Rahman has been named the 2017 Belleville News-Democrat Large School Offensive Player of the Year.
“I did not expect this,” said Abdur-Rahman. “It’s one thing to be Player of the Week. It’s totally different to be player of the year.”
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Abdur-Rahman, who was the BND Player of the Week after a 70-0 Week 9 win over Collinsville, follows in the paw prints of six other Tigers who have earned BND Player of the Year honors since 1996.
Most recent was a season ago when AJ Epenesa was the 2016 Large School Defensive Player of the Year. He recently was named a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman Team while playing defensive end for the University of Iowa.
Former Tigers quarterback Dan Marinko was a two-time Player of the Year in 2014 and 2015, when there was just one award.
Abdur-Rahman was a Class 8A All-State selection by the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association.
“He’s a good kid,” said Edwardsville coach Matt Martin, who led the Tigers into the state semifinals for the second time in his seven seasons at the helm. “He’s an exceptional athlete and a competitor who wants to win.
“I think that’s why we get along so well.”
Blessed with eye-popping speed and agility, which he had used to help him earn all-Southwestern Conference second-team honors as a defensive back during his sophomore campaign, Abdur-Rahman switched to offense full-time as a junior and immediately displayed the ability to make something happen any time he touches the football.
Abdur-Rahman, who already has scholarship offers from Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota, among others, was recently clocked at 4.59 in the 40-yard dash.
For the season, he rushed for a team-high 1,399 yards and 26 touchdowns – one shy of the school record set in 2016 by Dionte Rodgers. Twelve of those touchdowns covered 20 yards or more highlighted by an 84-yard jaunt against Huntley in the Tigers’ postseason opener, one covering 81 yards against Belleville East and an 80-yarder in the loss to Naperville North.
Abdur-Rahman eclipsed the 100-yard barrier on five occasions and reached the 200-yard mark in victories against Alton (204 yards in a 20-17 victory) and East (200 yards in a 49-25 win).
“I really don’t know how it happens. I guess it is kind of instinctual,” said Abdur-Rahman of his ability to find open spaces. “I have been carrying the ball and making big plays since Little Tigers.
I played with Michael Vick, and I said, ‘That’s Michael Vick in high school. Amazing. That’s crazy, the stuff that he does. His highlight film is unbelievable.
John Holecek, Loyola Academy coach on Edwardsville QB
“A lot of it goes to my team, they did a great job blocking. Even my receivers were good at getting downfield.”
Passing-wise, Abdur-Rahman threw for 548 yards and eight touchdowns. He was intercepted just one time, in the Week 2 loss to CBC. It was his only turnover of the season as the Tigers recovered the ball the only two times he fumbled.
“Good luck,” Martin said with a laugh when discussing Abdur-Rahman’s ability to avoid turning the ball over. “Sometimes he carries the ball pretty loose and at least early in the season, I’d get on him about ball security.
“But eventually I thought, ‘He’s not turning it over,’ so I decided I was done saying anything.”
Quite the Kudos
His best regular-season performance may have come in a 45-14 win over a highly regarded Belleville West team in Week 8.
In that victory, Abdur-Rahman rushed for 149 yards on 16 carries and scored five TDs while also passing for one.
“That’s when the switch came on,” said Abdur-Rahman. “We realized we could be a team that could go far in the playoffs, go win state.
“If we lose, it was going to be on us because we had the talent. We just had to put it together.”
Maroons coach Cameron Pettus was impressed.
“He’s lightning in a bottle,” said Pettus in a BND article after the game. “He’s not the best thrower in the world, but boy, he can run, and if you can run like that ... He’s tough to contain. He’s so fast. You think you’ve got him contained on a play, but he squirts through there, and he can hit the jets and he’s gone.“
Another coach Abdur-Rahman drew praise from was Loyola Academy’s John Holecek.
A former all-Big Ten linebacker at Illinois, Holecek spent eight seasons in the NFL before finding his way to Loyola, where he has won one state title and finished second four times. That includes this past season as his Ramblers fell 23-14 to Lincoln-Way East in the Class 8A title game a week after their victory over Edwardsville.
“I played with Michael Vick, and I said, ‘That’s Michael Vick in high school,’” said Holecek. “Amazing. That’s crazy, the stuff that he does. His highlight film is unbelievable. I was completely worried about him all week. We were like, ‘If we take care of him, if we don’t let him beat us, we feel good.’”
Looking back, moving forward
Already hard at work on track season, Abdur-Rahman is a top sprinter for the Tigers who will be looking to defend their 2017 Class 3A team championship this spring in Charleston. He says the football team’s run through the playoffs was a special time.
Before the loss to Loyola, Edwardsville won its first three playoff games by a combined 10 points.
The 42-38 first-round win over Huntley featured what Abdur-Rahman called his favorite play of the season.
“It’s the first thing on my highlight tape,” he said. “I am just back there running back and forth for like 20 seconds, broke about six different tackles.Then as I am about to get tackled again, I see a receiver with no one near him so I threw it. He catches it, turns to run, he’s probably 40 yards from the end zone, takes about three steps and cramps up. Just falls.
“That was a big play for me, but it did not end up like I thought it would.”
Martin remembered that play as typical of how Abdul-Rahman could make something huge out of nothing.
“I think he made about 12 figure-eights on that play before he just threw it up there and Joe King caught it for a big gain,” said Martin. “It was ridiculous.”
A No. 26 seed, the Tigers were one of the biggest surprises of the postseason – no matter the class.
“Ever since we lost that third game, we knew that we could not lose another one and I think that really helped us,” said Abdur-Rahman. “Even going into the Loyola game, after everything we had done, no one gave us a chance. Someone even had us losing 45-7. Like, wow.
“So for it to come down to us losing by a touchdown. Better day, better conditions (it was rainy, windy and cold), it could have been a totally different game. I was so proud of our guys, our season. … Now we’ve got to get to work on next year when we plan to be back and better than ever.”