They’re split up now, starring at four different north metro high schools, on teams poised to make a significant run in the upcoming state playoffs. But ask any of these players to name their favorite football experience and invariably, one team stands out. And it’s not the ones they’re on now.
Their high school teams — Park Center, Osseo, Cooper and Champlin Park — all still walk upon a trail blazed by 2011 Brooklyn Park Saints eighth-grade team, one of the best youth teams Minnesota ever has produced.
The Saints made a mockery of the North Suburban Youth Football League, cruising to a 12-0 record and winning the league championship with relative ease. They scored 388 points during the 10-game regular season, 111 more than any other team in the league, winning games by scores of 62-0, 60-0 and 50-0. The postseason was more of the same, routing Mahtomedi and Centennial on their way to the league title.
“We weren’t just beating teams, we were demolishing them,” said coach Johnny Fortune, who still coaches football in the Brooklyn Park Athletic Association and is an unpaid assistant at Park Center. “These were special kids.”
How special? The roster is a veritable who’s who among north metro stars.
There’s Amani Hooker, the do-everything standout at Park Center with the Division I scholarship commitment to Iowa, and teammates Ty’Shonan Brooks, Elijah McClure, Malcom Lawson, Josh Wleh and Ben Stewart. All start for a Pirates team that enters the Class 5A playoffs with a 6-2 record, its highest victory total this millennium.
Over at Osseo is Prince Kruah, a Tasmanian devil of a running back; Damario Armstrong, a game-breaking wide receiver; and Dazzon Easterling, now a linebacker but once a feared backfield mate of Kruah’s. The hyper-athletic Orioles earned the No. 2 seed in Section 5 of Class 6A.
Cooper boasts Phillip Howard, quarterback whose overall athletic abilities have earned him a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. He is protected, as he has been since the eighth grade, by massive offensive lineman Dkhari Whitfield, who has grown to 6-7 and 340 pounds.
“He was always big,” Fortune said.
And key cogs in Champlin Park’s resurgence are linebackers Riley Altonan and Roy Nyangaresi, who lead a Rebels defense that paced impressive victories over Centennial and Osseo.
All of that talent on one team leads to one inevitable question: What if they had stayed together?
“During that time, I knew we were something special,” Hooker said. “But now, seeing what everyone else has done now with other high schools, we would have been really, really good.”
Armstrong went a step further, saying, “We would have won the Prep Bowl. Maybe two Prep Bowls.”
The Saints weren’t only an all-star team that happened by chance. The talent was obvious, but Fortune wasn’t about to let that talent go to waste.
Armstrong smiled and shook his head when asked about the Saints’ practice regimen.
“Bear crawls,” he said. “Anytime you did something wrong, you did bear crawls. It was discipline like in high school, even harder than high school.”
Said Wleh, now a battering ram in the middle of the Park Center defensive line, “We were so disciplined and so close, other teams feared us.”
For a time right after the 2011 season was over, those players thought they would stick together. The plan was to go to Park Center and see how far they could go as a group. But their youth football district embraced attendance areas for Osseo and Champlin Park as well. As their families decided where to enroll them, those considerations took precedence over their football dreams. Some ended up at Park Center, while others opted for other metro schools.
The players still find time to hang out by going to former teammates’ games, gathering at someone’s house or connecting through social media. And conversation always works its way back to that special season four years ago.
“Every time we’re all together, we talk about that team,” said Brooks, a silky smooth wide receiver and cornerback for Park Center. “They’re still brothers. Some people bring up teams they played on and we always say ‘You weren’t better than our team.’ ”
Even their parents remember those days fondly, still talking about what the Saints accomplished, often adding a wistful “what if.’’
“My mom and me still talk about that,” Kruah said. “We wish we could have stuck together, to see what we could have done.”
Yet it’s a testament to the quality of the Saints roster that they have been split up and contribute to success at four high schools.
“We left a legacy, and we don’t want to lose that,” said McClure, a physical tight end for both the Saints and the Pirates. “It might be the best team I’ve ever played for. But I have no regrets. I liked how it was then. I like how it is now.”