East St. Louis Senior High School
Minutes away from St. Louis is one of Illinois’ premier high school athletic programs, East St. Louis. The football team boasts seven state championships and two national championships, the most in the state.
East St. Louis has produced 29 state championships between the men’s and women’s track teams. In basketball, ESL has four state championships and multiple conference titles.
At ESL, athletics serves an even bigger purpose — it’s a way to provide education and opportunities to many kids from a community that needs hope.
The East St. Louis football program was featured in the 2017 documentary “89 Blocks” (the title refers to the size of St. Louis’ footprint). The documentary humanized the personal issues faced by several players on the ESL football team and demonstrated how football served as a de facto family and emotional tether for students in a community hit hard by low income, erosion of the local economy, and crime.
East St. Louis Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Darren Sunkett has helped transform the athletic program into a source of local pride.
The school’s athletic success corresponds with a rise in its academics. Over the previous six years, the graduation rate has improved by more than 14 percent, while the dropout rate has declined by 4 percent.
The ESL sports programs are doing their part to help point students to better attendance and grades. For example, in 2018 the football team began practice earlier than ever to keep kids out of summer school. If the athletes wanted to play, they had to average a C or better in every class.
And it worked. “We had some kids with really high grade-point averages,” Sunkett said in a video interview with IndeOnline.com. “ As part of the football training schedule, we incorporate study hall before practice two or three days a week. If kids are falling behind in school, we’ll make them go to study hall. We take academics very seriously. They go hand-in-hand. You can’t play football without academics.”
Sunkett says having successful sports programs helps the kids focus on aspirations. “When the kids are on campus, it’s a safe haven for them and we try to remove the negative influences,” he told IndeOnline.com.
Sunkett and his team try to serve as more than just coaches to their athletes, he says. “Sometimes you have to be a father figure, a brother, a mentor, or a coach,” he says. “We wear a lot of different hats.”
Why We Play
Christian Brothers College High School
Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis is a regional athletic powerhouse. Within the past five years, the Catholic school has claimed 15 state titles while making 28 trips to the semifinals.
As CBC continues to dominate men’s sports, Athletic Director Rocky Streb is focused on a bigger picture: the Why We Play initiative.
Why We Play is the slogan for the Missouri State High School Activities Association, and it’s meant to remind people of the true purpose of high school sports
“The idea is to put athletics into proper perspective,” Streb says. “Athletic participation is an extension of the classroom, where students can develop teamwork skills and understand the value of hard work and competition. They’re not intended as just a stepping stone to college athletic scholarship.”
Rising athletic expectations is a trend that all high schools are dealing with, Streb says. “College athletics is becoming more of the end game for too many kids,” he says. “The number of families paying to get on elite teams and hire personal trainers is soaring, and the return on investment is the college scholarship. It puts high school coaches in a tough position — if the coach doesn’t play him or cuts him, the coach has to deal with contentious parents.
“That’s why we push the Why We Play aspect. All high schools are trying to make sure athletics are a continuation of the high school experience and not a means to an end.”
CBC offers at least two teams in most sports to allow participation opportunities. They also haveseveral sports with “no cut” policies. To avoid overload, the student’s academics are monitored week to week and schoolwork gets top priority.
CBC has extended the slogan to reflect its Catholic identity and core LaSallian philosophy. “The motto at CBC is ‘Men for Tomorrow, Brothers for Life,’” Streb says. “It’s an extension of the classroom and school mantra. Coaches and teachers reinforce it with students every chance they can.”
Streb emphasizes that the key to aligning their values has been coaching leadership. The result of their unified vision has been academic and athletic success. “Coaching is a band of brotherhood at CBC,” he says. “They serve as mentors to younger coaches and share a lot of ideas across all sports. It has to happen organically — you can’t force it. These coaches have the personalities and leadership to make it work.”