Intentional Grounding: When the state stripped his Flyers of back-to-back conference titles last year, East St. Louis High football coach Darren Sunkett seemed done for. Not so fast.

On this crisp Friday evening in mid-September, East St. Louis Senior High School has just lost its first Southwestern Conference football game in six years, on a field goal in overtime. As the team lines up at midfield to shake hands with the visiting Belleville East Lancers, Flyers head coach Darren Sunkett lingers at the back of the pack, still pacing the sideline. He looks calm from afar, but his jaws clench as he chomps his game-day wad of bubblegum. He notices one of his players, a massive lineman, sitting on the bench in the classic pose of the vanquished, the open-palm face plant.

Sunkett glares at the boy.

"Get up, man!" he hisses. "If you blocked better, we wouldn't be in this situation."

Jennifer Silverberg
With seven conference titles and twelve straight playoff appearances at East Side, Darren Sunkett is one of the best coaches in the region. But some wonder whether he is willing to win at any cost.
Jennifer Silverberg
With seven conference titles and twelve straight playoff appearances at East Side, Darren Sunkett is one of the best coaches in the region. But some wonder whether he is willing to win at any cost.

Sunkett is not a man accustomed to losing.

He is the only active high school football coach to have won a state championship in both Illinois and Missouri. After taking the reins at East St. Louis — or East Side, as locals call it — in 2000, he pulled a moribund program out of a half-decade of disappointment and hauled it back to national prominence, bringing the school its first state title in seventeen years in 2008 and re-establishing the air of invincibility that had long surrounded the winningest high school football program in the nation. Flyers fans nicknamed him "The Mastermind" for his brilliant play-calling and high-powered offenses. Entering 2011 Sunkett-coached squads had reached the Illinois state playoffs in each of his eleven years at the helm, compiling a record of 102-25 and winning six conference titles, including the past four in a row.

But the wins aren't coming as easily as they used to. In August the Flyers were the top-ranked team in the Associated Press Illinois High School Football Class 7A poll. Then they bused down to Georgia to face another nationally renowned program and got whupped 41-0. And now, after having won their next two games, they inexplicably lose to Belleville East for the first time since 2001, evening their record at 2-2 and knocking them out of every local Top 10 poll.

As they jog back to the locker room from Clyde C. Jordan Memorial Stadium, many Flyers keep their helmets on. They don't want onlookers to see the tears. A few fans line up to offer moral support: "It's OK!" "Keep your heads up, boys!" But there's an elderly man in an orange suit and a brown cowboy hat, leaning on the chainlink gate, crying. High school football means a lot to the folks of East St. Louis, whose only other claim to fame is the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate per capita in all of the USA.

The team's film session the following Monday is brutal. Behind the bleachers, in a room the size of a freshman dorm, 40 boys, all of them black, are shoehorned onto thin wooden benches. The only light comes from the projector beaming the footage of Friday's game over Sunkett's shoulder onto the cinder block wall.

"This team right here's bringing the program down. This team right here's bringing the program down to mediocrity. 'Cause y'all don't work," he says, in his characteristic monotone.

"Y'all gon' be remembered as the sorriest East St. Louis team of all time."

He pauses, slowly shakes his head.

"Y'all ain't shit," he says. And then quieter: "Y'all ain't shit." And then almost in a whisper:

"Y'all. Ain't. Shit."

Following the Flyers' unexpected loss to Belleville East, many would tell you that the bleak outlook on the team's 2011 campaign had nothing to do with the offensive line. If you were looking to hand out blame, they'd advise you to lay the whole steaming pile at the feet of the head coach himself.

Some would say Sunkett should have been fired before the season began.

And they'd have a point.

In late September 2010, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that one member of the Flyers roster, a senior defensive lineman named Charles Tigue, lived outside the boundaries of School District 189. He was therefore ineligible to compete for the Flyers, who were midway through what would turn out to be an undefeated season. BND reporters Maria Baran and George Pawlaczyk found that Tigue, who had been indicted on felony armed-robbery charges stemming from a March 2009 incident, lived in Belleville.

A day after the story ran, the Illinois High School Association, the organization that oversees interscholastic athletic competition in the state, launched an investigation. By the time the agency ruled Tigue ineligible, the playoffs were under way. The penalty was harsh: The Flyers forfeited every game in which Tigue had played over the prior two years. The stroke of a pen ended the team's postseason and stripped East St. Louis of sixteen victories — ten from 2009 and six from 2010 — and two conference titles. (Tigue's case is scheduled to go to trial early next year.)

When the News-Democrat and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the Flyers' crime and punishment, commenters on both newspapers' websites gathered like hyenas around a fresh carcass. "This is par for the course in the cesspool known as East St. Louis," wrote one visitor to the Post's site, "By their nature, all of the kids have a million aunts and uncles," ventured a News-Democrat reader. Wrote a third, on stltoday: "Sunkett is a cheater. Anything the school has done since he has been there should be disallowed." And a fourth: "These same 'recruiting' and 'ineligible' player issues seem to follow Coach Sunkett wherever he coaches. Trouble follows this guy like the plague."

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