V.I. Football on the Rise; Coaches Say it Needs Support

In recent years the V.I. has been sending players all over the country. Clockwise from top left: Akil Emanuel, Mesabi Range Community College; Shaquan Lewis, Minnesota State; Le’Joni Williams, Minnesota State; Celestino White, Presentation University.

With the Virgin Islands high school football season kicking off Friday with a match between the Ivanna Eudora Kean and Charlotte Amalie high schools, those involved in the sport say its popularity is on the rise but local athletes need continued support.

Over the past ten years more than 50 football players from V.I. high schools have been able to continue their athletic and academic careers at colleges on the mainland. Even with a shortened season last year due to the destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, two players from St. Thomas high schools were able to continue playing football on scholarship at the next level: Shaquan Lewis, an offensive lineman from IEKHS is currently playing at Minnesota State Fergus Falls and Raekoi Evans, a wide receiver from CAHS took his talents to Edwards Waters College in Jacksonville.

This year the league has expanded its schedule so that each team will be able play six games and teams will have the opportunity to travel twice.

The resurrection of the men’s summer flag football league this year by league commissioner Francisco Jarvis was a step towards continuing the trend of sending Virgin Islands student-athletes to colleges. Some of the territory’s best high school football players were able to improve their skills over the summer while former college players had a chance to showcase their talents as well.

Those high school players were Sebastian Silva (All Saints High School) and four players from CAHS: Malik Jean Baptiste, Rekai Creque, Kenval Thompson and David Heyliger.

Silva and Jean Baptiste were selected to Virgin Islands All-Star teams and will play in this years Turkey Bowl.

On Sept. 5th the V.I. Department of Education was selected as one of 18 grant recipients of $40,000 to purchase new football equipment. The announcement was made by Peyton Manning, former Indianapolis Colt and Denver Bronco, who said, “In the last year, your football programs, schools and communities overcame significant adversity in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Your resilience has inspired all of us.”

Jarvis, who has been organizing football showcases for Virgin Islanders since 2008 believes that, “leaders need to see the benefits of tackle football for it to excel.”

Ex-Charlotte Amalie Defensive Coordinator Ray Husband said one of the major benefits football provides to the community is it “keeps young men off the street doing something productive after school.”

“Coaches become surrogate fathers, counselors and teachers” of the young men that they are coaching, said Elroy Donovan Jr., head coach of the IEKHS Devil Rays.

But Jarvis said sometimes support for student athletes is hard to come by.

“Parent participation was low compared to states, and for a league to work, the parents need to see the benefits,” he said.

Former Arawak Head Coach Sherman Thomas said stateside high school football leagues often have medical staff on hand, which local leagues could benefit from.

“Every college has medical personnel, even in high schools in Georgia, there [were] trained medical personnel on the sideline.”

Two players that played under Thomas during his time with Arawaks are currently playing college football. Those athletes are Fernando Silva, who plays at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and Jemoi Gerland at Florida Tech.

People close to the game have lofty expectations for this generation of high school football players, with Thomas wanting to issue a territory-wide challenge “to graduate a local high school and make it to the NFL.”

The last Virgin Islands high school graduate to go on to play in the league was Renaldo Turnbull, who was selected with the 14th pick of the 1990 NFL Draft out of West Virginia and went on to play seven years for the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, earning one Pro Bowl selection while recording 45.5 sacks and forcing nine fumbles during his career.

One native of the V.I. is currently playing in the league: Linval Joseph, who scored a 60 plus yard defensive touchdown for the Minnesota Vikings Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He left St. Croix after his freshman year of high school.

Those who want to support the next generation of football talent in the Virgin Islands can do so starting this weekend when IEKHS faces off against CAHS on St. Thomas Friday at 7 p.m. at Lionel Roberts Stadium. St. Croix Educational Complex will face Central High on St. Croix Saturday at 1 p.m. The league will have its championship game in December.