All-Stars alike for area football players

After crossing paths in high school, each will play college football

BY NICK CLARK

nick.clark@ecm-inc.com

The best high school football playing graduated seniors in the state gathered at St. Cloud State University June 30 for the 39th playing of the Minnesota High School Football All-Star Game.

The four-quarter grudge match between teams labeled North and South divided by a line cutting right through the heart of the metro and severing the state in half was the climax, and surely provided some clarity to an argument that lasted all the week leading up to it on the hills of Collegeville.

This, after all, is football. Where there is a winner, and a loser.

"It’s why we are here," said Taj Rich, a linebacker from Robbinsdale Cooper. "The North/South rivalry is a real one. We want this thing."

There was, however, much more to be gained than a victory for the players involved.

Each of the 90 participants spent the week living and practicing at St. John’s University, forming a bond that was impossible to penetrate on Friday night’s last fall.

For three players from our coverage area – Rich, Osseo senior D.J. Hebert and Champlin Park’s Gjullian Flemister-King – those interactions during their final high school football season all crossed odd paths.

Rich and Cooper had their season end in a playoff loss at Champlin Park, which was the same site as Hebert’s most memorable victory as Osseo’s quarterback, as his last second, desperation heave ended with a game-winning, buzzer-beating touchdown.

Coincidently, as Hebert scrambled to keep that game-deciding play alive, it was Flemister-King chasing him down from the Champlin Park defensive line.

"He is all I remember seeing," admitted Hebert. "It was like he was there on every single play. I just know I couldn’t let him get his hands on me, because if he does, it is over."

Added Flemister-King, "One more second and I had him. It was a great play on his end, but I was coming."

Both now – along with Rich – are headed to college, where all three will play football at the next level.

Rich, who is believed to be the first representative from Cooper to play in the all-star game since Jeff Olson made it in 1997, will play on scholarship for the University of North Dakota.

The school offered the linebacker after his junior season at Cooper.

"They showed me right away they were interested, and that was a big deal to me," Rich said. "What I liked about them was their defense. They were aggressive, and they played hard with a lot of enthusiasm. It just felt like a good fit."

Hebert said he too fit in well at the University of Northern Iowa, though he’s not quite sure as what yet when he arrives in Cedar Falls.

He played quarterback in high school, and was recruited as such by the Panthers. But he also spent time as a defensive back at Osseo, and was named to the all star team on the defensive side.

Since his high school football season ended, however, Hebert helped lead the Osseo basketball team to a state title in March – a fact not lost at St. John’s after a run-in with South Team quarterback Trey Heid of Lakeville North, who was on the losing end of the Orioles thrilling state tournament run.

"We talked about it," Hebert said. "I wasn’t sure if he would want to, because that must have been tough. I try not to talk about it as much, because I don’t know if people want to hear about it. But if it were up to me, I’d talk about it all the time. It still gives me the chills."

Hebert also spent plenty of time talking about his position on the football field, which is sure to be a topic of conversation when he arrives at UNI in the fall.

"When they recruited me, they told me they wanted the ball in my hands," he said. "But you never know. I never thought I’d be playing [defensive back] in [the all star game]. I’ll do whatever they want me to do."

Flemister-King is just hoping for a chance. The undersized defensive end spent most of his football career looking up at offensive lineman, and that continued during all-star week, where he routinely faced off against a pair of lineman that had nearly a foot on him.

But his size (5-foot-10, 220-pounds) hasn’t affected his heart, or his biceps. And he’s hoping both lead to an opportunity when he takes the practice field at the University of Nebraska as a walk-on in August with the Cornhuskers legendary Blackshirts.

"The contacted me a few years back, and I didn’t give it much thought then," Flemister-King said. "But then I started to look at them more, and I notified them that I was interested. They weren’t sure if they could get me a scholarship, so I told them I’d be interested in walking on. I’m going to go down there, show them what I got and hope for the best."

Flemister-King also uttered that same hope just before the start of the state wrestling tournament in the winter. Five days later, he was in the big-school title bout for the heavyweight division.

He also ran track in the spring, where he watched his bloodline – little brother Joe Sando – run to a third place finish in the state finals of the boys 100-meter dash while fine tuning his own speed and athleticism.

"All my sports really do help out with other ones," Flemister-King said. "In wrestling, I’m always down in that low stance being explosive and trying to work against other opponents. In track I am getting faster and football is both. It’s really allowed me to become a balanced athlete."

Which was why he was allowed to trade a few more jabs with guys like Rich and Hebert last week, only on a more friendly level then ever before.

That, North Team head coach Jeff Schlieff said, is the beauty of last week.

That, and of course, a little more football.

"These guys come from all over the place, but we have a common goal this week, and that’s to become a team by Saturday," said Schlieff, who will be entering his 20th season as the head coach at Spring Lake Park high school. "They are living together, eating together, practicing together. They really get a chance to get to know each other, and they get to do it while playing a game they all love. It’s a great week for everybody involved."

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