Today’s prep stars — once, they were Eagles

Aug. 21, 2014 @ 09:45 PM

Pay attention to the way high school football players around here are blocking and tackling this season.

A whole bunch of them started learning their techniques for all of that when they were real little guys running around as Durham Eagles.

Before Hillside quarterback Nas Forté-Ferguson was a Hornet, he was an Eagle. It’s the same deal with Ray Green, Miles Kelly, Jalon Bethea, Gerald Wilkes Jr., Laurence Fogg, Markus Crutchfield, Jarrett McCarter, Kobe Scotton ...

“The list goes on,” Eagles coach Donald Thomas said. “Hillside is loaded down with them.”

Southern quarterback Kendall Hinton was an Eagle, and so was Southern defensive back Marvin Tillman. Their first game of the season is Saturday.

And there’s Picasso Keaton, Gyasi Edwards, Marcus Speller and Clayton Cockerham — Jordan Falcons now, but Durham Eagles first.

“These are the ones that came to mind. There are probably more,” Hillside Booster Club president Greg Bethea said. “There are several kids who played football together starting at the age of 6. These kids now are at various high schools around the city and compete against one another. Even though they are rivals on the field, they have maintained close bonds off the field.”

What’s really neat is those guys have legitimate opportunities to earn scholarships to play football in college, Bethea said.

Hinton has committed to play at Wake Forest, for example. Duke wanted him.

But that’s basically what happens when young guys start flying around with Eagles, Durham Eagles Athletic Association commissioner Don Jones said.

“We don’t chase championships,” Jones said. “We’re more about developing kids into good football players, but, more importantly, quality young men.”

In 1993, Durham attorney James D. “Butch” Williams and NBA standout Rodney Rogers put up the money to start what now is the DEAA.

Rogers played college basketball at Wake Forest after tearing it up at Hillside.

Jones stiff-arms praise directed at him for running a fine Pop Warner Football organization and instead hands off the kudos to Rogers and Williams and coaches like Thomas.

This will be Thomas’ 24th season with the Eagles. He is 59 and said he is not two decades into this looking for a stepping stone to land a gig coaching high school or college ball.

“I’m not chasing being a high school coach. I’ve been there,” Thomas said.

Thomas, an information-technology engineer, said he’s simply about developing kids. Period. And he said he’s so in sync with young guys that by the time they get a couple of sentences out of their mouths, he can tell if they’re from the ‘hood or if their fathers are involved in their lives. From there, he said it’s about the challenge of giving the young men the kind of coaching they need.

So while all manner of high school mascots will be represented under the Friday-night lights this fall, let the record reflect that more than a few of the guys wearing those helmets and jerseys once tussled in the trenches along lines of scrimmage as Eagles.

“We do play good football around here,” Jones said.

The Eagles won a national championship in 2003.