THE STORY OF East St. Louis (Ill.) High's football team might feel familiar: An athletic program thrives in an afflicted community, providing its players with a foundation of strength and a path toward a better life. In 89 Blocks, the SI Films documentary chronicling the Flyers' 2016 season that will air on Fox on Nov. 26, coach Darren Sunkett sums up the reality his players face. "We live this struggle every damn day," he says, "but when we come out here, we forget about it all."
The film's impact derives in part from the magnitude of that struggle: East St. Louis has the nation's highest per capita murder rate, and 43.5% of its 26,922 residents live below the poverty line. But the doc also delivers emotional force by focusing on individuals: the enigmatic star receiver who, coaches admit, is a mystery even to them; the cornerback who is devastated by the sudden death of a 17-year-old cousin; the coach who, through his work, compensates for missed time with his own eldest son. What might seem all too familiar becomes deeply human.
Sunkett knows well football's power to elevate. Playing at Camden (N.J.) High in the early 1980s helped lift him out of the troubled city to Cheyney (Pa.) University, a historically black school where he lined up at defensive back. "That was pretty much my ticket to success," he says. By the early '90s he had married his wife, Lisa, an East St. Louis native, and they relocated to the area. In 2000, after coaching eight seasons at two other area schools, Sunkett took over the Flyers, who had claimed six state titles and produced NFL All-Pros such as linebacker Bryan Cox and tight end Kellen Winslow Sr. before sliding into mediocrity in the years following the 1995 retirement of legendary coach Bob Shannon.
It was a trajectory not unlike that of East St. Louis itself. Once a thriving middle-class manufacturing and shipping hub—the National Civic League designated it an All-American City in 1959, the same decade its population peaked at more than 80,000—it was hit by forces of urban destabilization, both common and unique: deindustrialization, white flight, the construction of an interstate that fractured neighborhoods.
When the crack epidemic struck the U.S. in the 1980s, the drug "came in and tore through the city like a forest fire in a high wind," says Daily Beast editor-at-large Goldie Taylor, an East St. Louis native. Wildly disparate federal sentencing laws (one gram of crack was treated the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine) hastened the devastation by tearing up implicated families and keeping them apart. The city's population continued to wane. Schools shuttered or merged. Neglected buildings fell into disrepair, their surrounding lots overgrown. "The city was never the same," Taylor says.
Against this backdrop Sunkett rebuilt the football program into a powerhouse that serves as one of the city's points of pride and its players' brightest source of hope. In 89 Blocks—a reference to the city's footprint and a nickname used by East St. Louisans—Sunkett and his staff impress on their team that football can open doors to higher education. (The school's 2015 season had been cut short by a midseason teachers' strike, wiping out the best chance to impress recruiters for that year's seniors.)
No Flyer from the class of '17 is more coveted than wideout Jeff Thomas, an eventual All-America and top 10 recruit at his position. But no Flyer is as frustrating, either. Absent from a string of practices, Thomas is held out of a game and must eventually win over his teammates, who voted on whether he should keep his roster spot. His coaches confide that their star is hard to reach, often hidden behind walls he's built to protect himself from a harsh environment.
Miami football fans can provide an update on Thomas's saga. After committing to the Hurricanes last February, the 5'10", 175-pound Thomas has forced his way onto the field as an explosive, if slight, slot receiver, catching 13 passes for 273 yards, including 48- and 78-yard scores in consecutive games last month. "I'm not surprised," Sunkett says. "Jeff's been doing what he's doing now since he was in sixth grade."
The Flyers of the movie are scattered: Last season's quarterback, Rey Estes, is now a cornerback at Minnesota; linebacker James Knight is at Illinois; two alumni play at Missouri; more dot juco rosters. Sunkett says he spends weekends watching and recording every game of theirs that he can and much of the week calling, texting and Facebook messaging to check in.
In turn he asks his former players to pay it forward by sharing their story with an audience who might find optimism in its familiarity. "We instill in our kids: Once you make it, come back and preach to the kids still playing," Sunkett says. "Tell them, 'I walked these 89 blocks that you walked at one time. If I can do it and have success, you can do the same.'"
The SI-produced documentary on the East St. Louis Flyers will air on Fox on Sunday, Nov. 26. Check your local listings.