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.

Nov 17, 2011 at 4:00 am

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."

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."

Yet Sunkett had never before been sanctioned by the IHSA. His coaching stints on both sides of the Mississippi provoked their share of flak, but over the fifteen years leading up to the Tigue scandal, only two documented incidents amounted to more than innuendo.

In 1999, while coaching the Riverview Gardens High School Rams in north St. Louis County, Sunkett drew a suspension after an altercation at a game between Pattonville and Hazelwood East. Sunkett had gone to the game with his assistant coaches and a group of his players to scout the competition. He says the conflict arose when some Pattonville fans began throwing popcorn at his players. Tempers flared, to the point where Pattonville administrators and a police officer intervened, ordering Sunkett to move his team and accusing them of inciting the crowd. Sunkett got into a heated argument with one of the administrators, who later filed a complaint with the Missouri State High School Activities Association, alleging that the Rams coach had cursed at her. MSHSAA suspended Sunkett for two games.

In 2008, en route to the Flyers' first state championship under Sunkett, an East St. Louis player collapsed on the sideline during a game against Collinsville. Doctors later determined that Demond Hunt Jr. had sustained a concussion earlier in the contest, and that he lapsed into a coma after a blood vessel burst in his brain.

Hunt's mother, Shanai McLorn, filed suit the following year, alleging negligence and willful and wanton misconduct and asserting that her son's injury and subsequent brain damage were a product of a locker-room culture that "place[s] winning over the health, safety and welfare of its student-athletes."

According to the lawsuit, which lists both the school district and Sunkett as defendants, the coach "ridiculed and sought to embarrass student-athletes who suffered injuries[,] thus creating an atmosphere where injuries were not reported." After another player complained of a head injury, the suit claims, Sunkett told him to "quit playing like a little bitch and get out there." The plaintiff also asserts that the padding inside Demond Hunt's helmet was not properly inflated, and that Sunkett should be held responsible. McLorn seeks a minimum of $400,000 for medical expenses, plus damages.

"The charges are unfair," says Sunkett, pointing out that numerous Flyers have missed games this year because of injury. "None of that is true." Sunkett's attorney, Kevin Kaufhold, has filed a motion arguing that the coach should not be held independently liable, because he is an employee of the school and the incident occurred in the normal course of his job. Through his secretary, Kaufhold declined to comment for this story.

McLorn's attorney, Stephen McGlynn, didn't respond to four messages left with his secretary, requesting comment. The case is pending.

The small flat-screen TV in Darren Sunkett's office, perched precariously on a makeshift shelf of slapped-together two-by-fours, is always on, displaying a never-ending loop of game tape. Pieces of scrap paper scribbled with newly drawn-up plays litter the adjacent desk, which is where Sunkett usually eats his lunch. If he's not leading football practice, coaching a game or fulfilling his obligations as a PE teacher, he's in here, glued to the screen or the scrap paper. It's an obsession fueled by a deep hatred of losing.

"He's cocky," says Sunkett's boss, East St. Louis Senior High athletic director Leonard Manley. "He believes that you can't beat him, you're not gon' beat him, and if you beat him he's pissed off about it."

Sunkett doesn't smile much — not in public, anyway. His expression rarely deviates from the furrowed brow and pursed lips of serious thought. He is six-foot-three, with a lean athletic build and soft features that make him look younger than his 45 years. A skullcap almost always covers his clean-shaven head. When he isn't on the football field, the tone of his voice tends to oscillate somewhere between indifferent and melancholy. After games, while opposing coaches often jog to midfield with their right arm outstretched, Sunkett ambles over like a teenager sent to the principal's office, then softly nods and quickly shakes hands without reciprocating the customary pat on the back. And that's after 30-point wins.

"It's rubbed some people the wrong way," Manley acknowledges. "He's not the typical coach that's gonna walk to the sidelines and have a conversation with the opposing coach. That's just not his demeanor. It's not that he's disrespecting that coach. It's just he's playing against that coach, and he's not trying to hobnob and socialize. You'll never catch him out drinking with opposing coaches. You'll never catch him having dinner or having lunch with opposing coaches. That's not in his DNA."

Sunkett's animation emerges during games, when his players make critical mistakes. At one key point in the Belleville East game, quarterback Lamontiez Ivy threw an incomplete pass on third down when he easily could have run for the first down. Sunkett met him as he reached the sideline, leaned in so close that his nose was nearly touching his star quarterback's facemask and screamed.

"When you gon' lead us, man? When you gon' lead yo' goddamn team? Why you ain't run for that, man? What you tryin' to prove?"

During the same game, when his two starting wide receivers returned to the sidelines after each dropping a pass, Sunkett ordered the boys to drop to the turf and give him twenty pushups in front of the packed bleachers.

Such overt displays of competitive fire feed rival coaches' perception that Sunkett wants to win no matter what the cost; that he cares more about the numbers on the scoreboard than state rules or the welfare of his players; that he represents all that is wrong with amateur athletics.

"I can't believe that guy is still coaching," says a former coach whose teams went up against Sunkett during the Riverview Gardens era, speaking on the condition that his name not be published for fear it would cost him his current job in the public sector. "The only reason he hasn't been fired is because he wins."

Sunkett bristles at any implication that he plays outside the rules. But he doesn't hide the fact that he's hard on his players. On several occasions he has fielded phone calls from parents complaining about his ultra-strict approach. He addressed the issue head-on during an early-season team meeting.

"Ain't no babies in here," he told the boys. "Ain't no babies in here. You can't handle it, get the fuck out this locker room."

Since 1897, the Flyers have won more games than any team in the country, compiling a record of 877-252-45. Inside Clyde C. Jordan Memorial Stadium, on the walls across from the concession stand and the restrooms, eleven eight-foot-high display cases tell the story of East St. Louis high school football through hundreds of photos and news clippings. Here are all the legendary players, legendary coaches, legendary conference- and state-championship teams.

The most prevalent image by far is that of coach Bob Shannon.

No East St. Louis head football coach will likely ever escape the looming shadow of Bob Shannon. Over a twenty-year career that began in 1976, Shannon brought home thirteen conference championships, six state championships and two national championships. During one stretch his team won 44 straight games. Though he retired in 1995 and few at East Side can remember the last time they saw him on campus, Shannon remains the face of East St. Louis football, the way Vince Lombardi is the face of the Green Bay Packers.

At the height of Shannon's reign, in the '70s and '80s, close to a hundred kids came out for football each season. But things have changed. Nowadays Sunkett is lucky if he can field a 40-man varsity squad.

The gridiron population trend mirrors that of the city itself.

In the early twentieth century, East St. Louis was a burgeoning industrial hub, on its way to becoming a prodigious producer of aluminum, rubber, glass bottles, bricks, fertilizer, soap, chemicals, paint pigment and more. At one time it offered the cheapest coal and featured the second-largest hog market in the world. According to U.S. Census figures, the city reached its peak around 1950, when it reported a population upward of 80,000.

It's been pretty much downhill ever since, as shipping routes shifted and companies followed, leaving behind chemical brownfields and the shells of antiquated buildings. Whites and working-class blacks decamped, usually headed for more promising nearby towns such as Belleville and Fairview Heights. Recent census figures show that 99 percent of East St. Louis residents are African American.

"It wasn't so much white flight. It was wealth flight. It was people of means who got up and left. And yes, it benefited the surrounding areas," says Andrew Theising, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville and the author of Made in the U.S.A.: East St. Louis: The Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town.

Theising, who heads SIUE's Institute for Urban Research, explains that East St. Louis had long been run by machine politics, with lawmakers skimming off the top of the money heap that came with the industrial boom. As the revenue supply dried up, the government, which had been shaped to protect the corporations that fueled the city's growth, was ill-equipped to take care of its people. In 1980 the town was $180 million in debt. In 1989 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development called East St. Louis "The most distressed small city in America."

Sums up Theising: "East St. Louis was pillaged. They had leaders that stole everything this town had."

When Sunkett came to East Side in 2000, 31,000 people lived in East St. Louis, according to census data. The population has since fallen by more than 15 percent. Most of the Flyers' coaches reside outside the city. Sunkett lives in Belleville; Manley lives in Maryville.

The average per-capita income in East St. Louis is less than $13,000. Forty percent of the city's households are headed by a woman with no husband present. A third of adults have no high school diploma. Over the past five years, enrollment at East St. Louis Senior High has plummeted by 25 percent.

In May the state took over the school district for the second time in twenty years, citing newspaper reports of patronage on the part of school-board members and the fact that only 9 percent of the high school's students meet state academic requirements.

East Side's demographics make it an outlier in its conference. The school, like the city, is 99 percent black; no other school in the eight-team Southwestern Conference is less than 55 percent white. Ninety-nine percent of East St. Louis Senior's students are eligible for the federally subsidized school lunch program — more than twice the rate at any other school in the conference. And the school's enrollment is dwarfed by that of its competition. Belleville East, the largest school in the Southwestern Conference, has 72 percent more students than East Side's 1,564. Granite City, the conference's second-smallest school, out-mans East St. Louis by 23 percent. The Flyers are at the lower end of the state's Class 6A division, but the team always petitions to play in the more competitive Class 7A.

At East Side there are half as many seniors as freshmen. The pull of the streets is the school's — and the Flyers' — top competition. When you're living with a sputtering infrastructure, vast poverty and ubiquitous crime, there's little incentive to put in fifteen hours of football practice each week and keep your grades high enough to maintain athletic eligibility.

Those who do choose to play it straight risk looking like punks.

"You got some people afraid of what their friends on the streets say if they come out for a sport," says Jeremy Nicholson, a senior running back and team co-captain. "People worry about, like, if you stop hanging with your friends on the street they say, 'Aw, you this,' and, 'Aw, you that,' and all types of names. Then you're into it with 'em. That's why some people just don't come out. A lot of people did sports in middle school and were good at it, smart and everything. Then when we got to high school, they started hanging around the wrong people and they just quit sports. It's crazy. They just gave up on it. But I understand. They probably got something going on in their life."

For instance, Bobby Moore, one of the team's top receivers, played varsity his freshman season but then got kicked out of school for a semester for fighting and other disciplinary infractions. He came back, though, spurred on in part by a visit from one of his coaches.

"I made a change from being an East St. Louis kid in the neighborhood to being a student-athlete," Moore says. "It changes my whole demeanor, my whole perspective on things. Now teachers see me in the hall, they see I'm a football player. They don't see me as a bad kid. I've seen some of the worst attitudes change, become dedicated, all 'cause of this — all 'cause of East St. Louis football.

"If I wasn't playing ball right now, I'd be all out in the neighborhoods hanging out with those bad groups, and something bad would probably happen, 'cause that's the way it is when you're in those situations."

When you're sprinting and hitting inside Clyde C. Jordan, the streets seem distant. The stadium is big and pristine, with brightly painted walls and well-tended turf, an oasis plunked down amidst a battered, crumbling landscape. The Oklahoma drills and summer conditioning sessions are grueling. But they're far easier than the empty stretches of time between practices.

"Everybody here wants it," Nicholson says of himself and his teammates. "We want it more in life than others. Like, sportswise, growing up down here in this city, outside of school we're always dealing with something in our family or whatever. We rely on sports to get us through. Get us through everything."

Those like Jeremy Nicholson who go all-in with the Flyers submit to hard discipline and a daily grind. But at the end of the four years, a path out of town opens up.

Fifteen of the seventeen seniors on last year's squad enrolled in college — some to continue with football, some solely to continue their education. (The school doesn't keep track of overall college placement numbers. And while the official graduation rate is 90 percent, that figure is based on senior-class enrollment — discounting the hefty attrition in the first three years.)

From the moment they first step into the locker room, players are immersed in college talk. Most dream of playing college ball, having seen older teammates go off to faraway campuses. They take note of the occasional scout at practice. They mind their grades and prepare for the ACTs. Sunkett and his coaching staff see to it that the die is cast long before a single football scholarship is awarded.

During a midseason practice, for example, assistant coach Shane Fast can be heard peppering senior safety Isaiah Doss about his preparation for the ACT.

"You gon' help me?" Doss asks with a grin.

"Yeah," says Fast. "You're gonna bring the food?"

"Nah, I bring the books, you bring the food," Doss replies.

Sunkett and his staff know that football is the motor that drives many of the kids past the potholes on the street and the drug dealers on the corner and the dropouts on the stoops, toward a life that seems otherwise unthinkable for a young man growing up in East St. Louis. He's hard on his players, shouts at them when they don't meet the intimidatingly high bar he sets for them. Just as they come to understand that he expects them to make those difficult catches or blocks or throws or tackles, they absorb the corollary — that he expects them to apply the same work ethic and confidence off the football field, and to achieve the same results.

"Coach Sunk helps me 'cause he presses me," says Moore. "That tells me he really cares about me, and he wants to see me change. He wouldn't be doing all that if he didn't care. I thought he might give up on me one day, but he hasn't given up."

The players have returned the favor by relighting the torch of East St. Louis football. In the interregnum between Sunkett and Shannon, the Flyers compiled a 35-24 record and not a single conference title. Soon after he took the reins, Sunkett recalls, a coach at a conference opponent told him, "East St. Louis'll never win again. The tradition they had was in the past. They'll never be winners again."

Then Sunkett and his kids went out and won.

Sunkett knows all about growing up poor in a distressed community. He came of age in the Ever Garden projects in Camden, New Jersey. While many of his friends fell into gangs, he filled his time with basketball and football, dreaming of making the pros one day. But in Camden, the streets were always close.

"My eighth-grade year — that's when the crack epidemic hit real hard in Camden," Sunkett recalls. "You pretty much saw a big change in everybody's neighborhood. Seeing mothers, single parents, addicted to crack cocaine. Seeing older guys that you see every day addicted to drugs. The corners got a lot more crowded, with drug dealing. It went from fistfights during my middle-school years, to my high school years, that's when you saw the teenagers actually shooting at each other."

In the final game of his freshman football season, Camden High played rival Woodrow Wilson. In the third quarter, while Sunkett was on the field, a gunfight broke out in the bleachers. As his coach shouted, "Get down! Get down!" the crowd poured onto the field, sprinting for safety, jumping fences. At least fourteen people were hit. The game was canceled.

Sunkett earned a scholarship from the Division II football program at Cheyney University, the nation's oldest historically black college, located outside Philadelphia. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he made it as far as the San Francisco 49ers training-camp roster but was cut prior to the 1987 season. A few years of minor-league football in San Jose were enough to convince him that his future lay elsewhere. An opening for a defensive-back coach at Ladue High School brought him to St. Louis in 1993. A year later he was promoted to defensive coordinator.

"He maxed out my talent, man," says Donald Catlin, who played cornerback for Sunkett at Ladue and now coaches at East St. Louis. "He got more out of me than I knew I had."

Sunkett's first head-coaching opportunity came in 1996, when he won the job at Riverview Gardens High School. The program hadn't had a winning season since the '80s. The season before Sunkett took over, the Rams went 3-7. In his first year as head coach, Riverview Gardens went 5-5. The next year, 8-3. And the year after that, 1998, they went 13-1 and won the Missouri state 5A football championship.

In 2000 the head-coaching post opened up at East St. Louis, and then-athletic director Ted Daniels offered it to Sunkett. Despite the city's straits, coaching the Flyers is an appealing job: rich tradition, talented athletes, a shot at the state title, packed stands, nice stadium.

Sunkett made waves from the moment he crossed the river.

He brought with him Damien Nash, who had been his star running back at Riverview Gardens for the previous three years. It appeared to be a clear case of recruiting, or, at the very least, a player switching schools purely for athletic reasons, which is also illegal.

The state investigated, and Nash was cleared to play.

The reason: Nash had been living with Sunkett and his wife for years, with the blessing of the boy's mother. "He was like a son," says Sunkett, who has four kids.

Nash was the most successful football player Sunkett has ever coached. During his sophomore year, he was one of the stars on the state championship team. He went on to excel at Mizzou and then play for the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos.

In late February 2007, Nash hosted a charity basketball game at Riverview Gardens to raise money for his Find A Heart Foundation. He had created the organization a month earlier, after his older brother received a heart transplant. Soon after returning home from the game, Nash collapsed and died. It was later determined that he had an enlarged heart and succumbed to sudden cardiac arrest.

After Sunkett describes getting the phone call informing him of Nash's passing, he hunches forward in his swivel chair and lowers his head. He rubs his eyes with thumb and forefinger to hold back tears.

Practice starts in a few minutes.

Lamontiez Ivy was in English class when he heard the news about the team's disqualification. It was early November 2010 and the Flyers had made it through the first round of the playoffs. Now the season was over. He burst into tears.

"All that work for nothing," he says now. "And they were just gonna take it from us? We woulda won a state championship, too. And they just took it away from us."

Illinois High School Association assistant executive director Craig Anderson says the News-Democrat article spurred the investigation.

"Originally we got the information through the newspaper article," he says. "This student had been arrested, and the address he gave police was different from where he was supposed to live in the district."

In addition to Charles Tigue, the IHSA looked into the status of every player on the Flyers' roster who had transferred to the school, including Ivy (who came from Centerville) and star running back Anthony Pierson (Gateway Tech). Ivy was quickly cleared. Pierson's situation became complicated when his father claimed Sunkett offered the kid a car and cash to lure him to East Side. While conducting the investigation, the IHSA benched Pierson for the final five games of the 2010 season — his senior year — so that the Flyers wouldn't be compelled to forfeit those contests if he were found ineligible. He was eventually cleared.

That didn't alter the Flyers' fate. One residency violation was all it took. The damage had been done.

Sunkett's public image took a further hit owing to family ties: He was married to Tigue's aunt, and the boy's father was a Flyers assistant coach. (He would later be fired for lying about his son's residency.) Citing these connections, Sunkett's critics contended that he must have been aware of Tigue's residency status from the start.

Sunkett points out that he and Tigue's aunt were separated at that time and in the midst of divorce proceedings — hardly a close-knit family unit.

He notes that like many athletes who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, Tigue led a tangled home life. His parents had separated by the time he enrolled at East St. Louis as a freshman. His mother lived in Belleville and his father lived with Tigue's grandmother, who resided within district boundaries; Tigue bounced back and forth between the two households. His father registered him at East Side under the grandmother's address. But because Tigue's parents were still married, their official residency remained in Belleville, as the News-Democrat discovered in his case file in criminal court.

"We don't like it one bit, to be honest with you," Anderson says, lamenting how one player's infraction can penalize an entire team. "Ultimately we have a set of guidelines and when they're not followed, and when they're not enforced in some way, it hurts the school playing by the rules. It was painful as we went through it, for them and for us."

It is a school district's responsibility to ensure that its students comply with state residency requirements. But although the potential consequences are more far-reaching when interscholastic sports are involved, athletes don't typically undergo a more thorough residency screening, which might have helped the Flyers avert a violation in Tigue's case.

"Along with everyone else in the state, if a father brings us an ID saying, 'This is where I live and I'm bringing my son,' we'll take that," says Manley, the athletic director. "We didn't ride around to see where he lived or where the kid lived or anything like that. We don't do that. In most situations that's a normal procedure. Last year it became something different. We could tell that there were some folks that just didn't want us to be successful last year. That's just putting it on the table.

"We realize that we left a stone uncovered," the athletic director is quick to add. "We left an I undotted. We thought that we had taken care of all the paperwork."

Many in the East St. Louis community believe the school was targeted by a rival. News-Democrat reporter Maria Baran says the newsroom did receive a tip about East Side residency violations, but that "as far as I know it had nothing to do with any other high school in the area."

Still, the News-Democrat reported that a week after the story broke, "the name of every principal in the Southwestern Conference — except East St. Louis — was signed on a letter to IHSA executive director Marty Hickman detailing allegations of eligibility problems on the Flyers' football team." And a conference spokesman told the paper that SWC principals and athletic directors had voiced the same "concerns" to Manley and East St. Louis High principal Jethro Brown at a conference meeting on September 16 — nearly two weeks before Baran and Pawlaczyk's article hit the streets.

The disqualification, and the indelible stain of recruiting allegations, sting the Flyers football program all the more because of the way they directly contradict the demographic realities the school faces and undermine all that the team has accomplished despite those obstacles: A school that is losing enrollment year after year, in a town that's hemorrhaging population — to neighboring districts, no less — is accused of luring kids to one of the most disenfranchised cities in America.

During Sunkett's fifteen-year coaching career, Tigue's case is the only time a recruiting allegation led to sanctions from the state.

"Everybody's saying we're getting everybody," says Flyers defensive coordinator Marion Stallings, who played for the team in the early 1970s. "No, we're not. It's the other way around. Every week I look across the field, and on the other sidelines I see kids I remember running around when they were this tall — whose daddies played with me at East Side. Those families moved out.

"Even though we win, you'd be surprised how difficult it is. 'Cause I've been to kids' houses that don't have running water, electricity's off. These are the problems our kids have here."

It's a good thing there are so many discarded tires lying around in East St. Louis: Good Samaritans put them over manholes that have been left gaping by thieves who've stolen the covers to sell to scrap-metal dealers.

Nearly all of the residents who remain here are lifers whose grandparents told them stories about the days when the proud buildings now decaying along Collinsville Avenue and the high-rise hotels now boarded up by the freeway teemed with life.

"There's a fierce pride in this city," says SIUE professor Andrew Theising. "People wait for a better day, and it never comes. Some people have been waiting a long time."

On Friday nights in the fall, the town lets loose some of that fierce pride. They gather at Clyde C. Jordan Memorial Stadium and cheer as their boys steamroll teams that have bused in from towns with smoother roads and better schools and more jobs and less crime. The industry and the neighbors may have left. But the Flyers haven't abandoned East St. Louis.

"Football is definitely the lifeline here," says Sunkett. "It's something this community has always been able to hang its hat on. It's always been a winner."

After the loss to Belleville East, Sunkett's Flyers went on a roll, finishing the regular season tied with O'Fallon at the top of the conference and playoff bound for the twelfth straight year.

But despite their motto for 2011 — "Unfinished Business," lettered on the back of each player's workout shirt — East Side reached just one round deeper into the postseason this year than in 2010. Following 33-7 and 41-0 blowout wins in the first two rounds, the Flyers lost the old-fashioned way this past Saturday afternoon at Jordan Stadium, falling in the quarterfinals to two-time defending 7A champion Wheaton Warrenville South.

For seniors like Lamontiez Ivy and Jeremy Nicholson, it marked the last game they'd suit up for as Flyers.

A month earlier, after a late-season practice, Nicholson had lingered on the sideline for a few minutes. He set down his helmet on the bench, and his shoulder-length dreads rippled in the autumn gusts. The field was empty, drawing his eyes to the round white logo painted on the turf at the 50-yard line that says, "East St. Louis: City of Champions."

"My mama, she's raising five kids by herself," the senior running back said. "She be talking 'bout she wanna work two jobs and stuff. My brother just got fired, so it's a lot on her. And I be wanting to help her out, but she tells me not to because she wants me to keep doing my sports, don't want me to worry 'bout this. And sometimes I be worrying about it, like, 'I can help.' But she always tells me, 'Keep coming out on this football field.' I just don't want my mama to overwork herself, 'cause that's not a good thing. So I be doing it for her. I be keeping myself out here. I know in the long run it's gon' pay off. And she ain't gon' have to worry 'bout paying no bills or nothing. She could just relax. That's all I want my mama to do, is just relax."

It was getting dark. Nicholson picked up his helmet and made for the locker room. Another day to get through before the next practice.