EAST ST. LOUIS — Five East St. Louis High football players were celebrated Wednesday morning on the stage of the Miles Davis Auditorium.
Luther Burden III, Toriano Pride Jr., Lamar Box, Ahmad Robinson and Dallas Brown were joined by their families during the ceremony at East Side High.
One by one, they gave thanks for the support they had received over the years from their parents, coaches and friends on their path to what has been a lifelong dream of playing NCAA Division I football. There were cheers, praise and applause. Photos were taken. Selfies were snapped. Instagram no doubt will be full of smiling Flyers reveling in the milestone of putting pen to paper and officially going D-I.
Wednesday was the first day high school seniors could sign their binding national letters of intent to D-I and D-II college football programs. The early signing period runs through Friday. A second signing period begins Feb. 2.
“It’s a blessing,” said Brown, who signed with Illinois State. “It’s something I wanted to do for my parents. I never wanted them to pay for school.”
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They won’t have to now that the paperwork is complete and the recruiting process has reached its glorious end. However, this is anything but the finish line. It’s actually the start of an even greater challenge. Securing a scholarship is hard. Keeping it is even harder.
Tyler Macon knows that first hand.
A 2021 East St. Louis graduate, Macon returned to his alma mater Wednesday morning to support his former teammates and friends on their big day. One of the all-time greats to play quarterback in Illinois history, Macon is in the final days of his freshman season with Missouri. He graduated from high school early and enrolled at Mizzou in January. The last 12 months have been eye- opening as he’s adjusted to life at college and in the Southeastern Conference.
“The biggest thing is managing your time,” Macon said. “The time routine, the schedule, everything is fast-paced. You’ve got your whole day planned out. You just have to make sure you’re everywhere on time because if not, it’s not like high school, there’s consequences that are going to affect you.”
Just like Macon, all of five of the Flyers on stage have been given the best preparation they could hope to receive. Longtime East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett has made his living getting players just like these five ready for the next level. This is his wheelhouse.
“It takes a certain type of individual to be a student athlete,” Sunkett told the assembly.
Offseason workouts start in January — if not December — and run all the way into August. When the weather warms up there’s conditioning, 7-on-7 competitions, recruiting camps and contact camps. The time and energy required to play football as a high school student, much less at a high level, requires a commitment not everyone is willing to make.
So for that commitment to the game to be rewarded with a scholarship, it’s no wonder why Pride, who signed with Clemson, was beaming much of the morning.
“Words can’t explain how excited I am,” Pride said. “I’m very proud of myself. I haven’t been this happy for myself in a long time.”
Box was grateful just to be sitting on the stage. There are people he was close with who didn’t live long enough to see him take this step. There are those, like Jaylen McKenzie, who would have had their own day to be celebrated. A national standout as a youth player, McKenize was shot and killed in 2019. He would have been a junior this fall.
“I lost some brothers along the way throughout my four years,” said Box, who signed with Northern Iowa. “It means a lot, I’m blessed to be here. Not too many people have this chance to be here. I’m really grateful and honored.”
Robinson was so excited he had a hard time falling asleep Tuesday night. Instead he listened to music and tried to wrap his mind around the fact that the dream he had when his youth league team won its championship has become reality. He had a healthy contingent of supporters in the crowd that helped him this far.
“I love it,” said Robinson, who signed with Arkansas State. “I had to make sure they all came. Everybody was coming.”
Burden remained true to his pledge and signed with Mizzou. The five-star standout and his family debuted a new logo that will surely be a hot item as they begin their way into the new world of name, image and likeness that has opened up an immense amount of financial opportunities for college athletes.
Burden is itching to get right into the thick of things in Columbia. He said he’s enrolling in January with every intention of doing what he can to make an impact as soon as he can.
“I just know I have to get up there early, learn the offense and get ready for the season,” Burden said. “I’m tired of high school. I’m ready to go on to the next chapter.”
That’s a common refrain from high school seniors. They have been here, done this and are eager to see what’s next. Macon’s experience is somewhat different if only because his senior season was submarined by COVID-19. Illinois moved football from the fall to the spring in the 2020-21 school year and Macon wasn’t going to stick around to play an exhibition season when he could get a head start on college.
But the last year has driven home just how enjoyable high school football can be. Macon’s two years at East St. Louis were unlike anything he’s ever done before or will ever do again. It’s a truly unique experience and one he didn’t fully appreciate until it was over.
“You’ve got to really enjoy those days,” Macon said. “High school is your prime days of football. You can have fun with it. In college it turns more into a business.”
The five Flyers on stage officially entered the business Wednesday. It's what they have always wanted. It's what they've worked for. Now they have it and all that comes with it.
"It’s really overwhelming right now and I’m really happy about it," Box said. "To make my family proud and see everyone else around me feels good."
Area football signings, NCAA Divisions I and II
|Jaylen||Banks||Lutheran North||SIU Carbondale|
|Brian||Brown||Lutheran North||SIU Carbondale|
|Luther||Burden||East St. Louis||Missouri|
|Jordan||Coleman||De Smet||Ball State|
|Tyson||Ford||John Burroughs||Notre Dame|
|Arlen||Harris Jr.||Lutheran St. Charles||Stanford|
|Logan||Jacobson||St. Pius X||Northern Illinois|
|Jalen||Lee||Fort Zumwalt North||South Dakota State|
|Nathan||Ruble||St. Pius X||Northern Illinois|
|Ashtin||Rustemeyer||Lutheran St. Charles||Arkansas State|
|Ryan||Schwendeman||St. Dominic||SIU Carbondale|
|Isaac||Thompson||St. Louis U. High||Missouri|
|Jaydon||Wannstedt||Lutheran St. Charles||Murray State|
|Caldra||Williford||Lutheran North||Murray State|
|Charles||Young III||Lutheran St. Charles||SIU Carbondale|