TUSCOLA — Boyd Brewer hopped in front of a crossing route early in the first half, got his hand up and forced an incompletion.
Just a few yards to the side of him, Illinois senior running back Reggie Corbin shot into the air and frantically started scanning the sidelines.
"Where's Boyd's dad?" Corbin shouted.
Some 25 yards away and off to the left, Bart Brewer smiled wide and made eye contact with Corbin.
"What did you feed Boyd today? He's killin' it," Corbin said, clearly losing both the ability and desire to contain his emotion.
Bart Brewer threw his arms up, laughed and succinctly replied, "Nothing, really."
In that moment, excitement met passion and Corbin couldn't keep either one bottled up for another second — or again for the rest of the game — leading his team, the Chargers, to a win over the Falcons in the Tuscola Flag Football League on Thursday night.
Corbin and Illini wide receiver Justice Williams are each in their second season coaching in the program. Linebacker Dele Harding was recruited by the duo to replace Del'Shawn Phillips, who recently signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent.
“It’s really cool to have them out here," said Boyd Brewer, 11. "They’re some of the best coaches I’ve ever had. It’s just fun to play practice and play games with them."
Their presence is meaningful and hardly a stunt for attention. After Joey Gibson, a player on the team, broke up a pass, Harding roared from the sideline: "You look like Ed Reed!" Reed, of course, is the former NFL safety who is a finalist to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Near the end of the game, Brodie Pfeifer, the smallest player on the team by a landslide, got the ball and juked left, then right, then shed another defender for a big gain. Williams sprinted down the sideline, high-stepping all the way, with his burly arms stretched to the max. Corbin, meanwhile, sprinted the field to meet with Pfeifer to celebrate the same moves that Corbin put on defenders last season on his way to 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns.
The line between who were the kids and who were the college athletes started to blur and the result was pure elation.
“It means the world to me," said Bart Brewer, of Tuscola. "I’ve told people that I think they have at least as much fun as the kids do. They’re awesome. Good role models to the kids."
Corbin was the linchpin to the Illinois football connection. He came aboard and recruited teammates to join him after being contacted by Jason Rahn, who brought the NFL Flag Football program to Tuscola. Williams was quick to jump aboard. He volunteers for the Tom Jones Challenger League in Champaign, a league that focuses on players with mental or physical challenges.
Coaching has given Williams a different insight. It's easy, now, to see why coaches took the time to mentor him when he was younger.
“I love putting smiles on people’s face," Williams said. "A motto that I like is: The best pleasure in life is giving something to someone with nothing they can give back to you in return. Putting a smile on their face is really all I need to go to bed at night."
Corbin is the head coach and stands behind the quarterback on offense. On defense, he stands on the sidelines with Williams to discuss what the next offensive series will look like. They scout opposing teams and Corbin even took lessons he learned from Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith to Tuscola to help with his own quarterback.
In his final season of eligibility, with a likely NFL career ahead of him, Corbin could be doing anything else with his time. That's a fact recognized by the parents with children on the team. He's dedicated to his craft and the Illini trio make the 30-minute drive to Tuscola between three and four nights a week. He's invested, like he is with anything, from his own playing career to video games.
“Honestly, it’s about the kids," Corbin said. "I think all this attention that Illinois football players get at this level means nothing if you don’t give back. That’s the only reason why we get it and it’s what we should do with it.
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“I think about it like this: If I was a kid their age and a college football player came out here and coached me, I would fall in love with the game."
Coincidentally, Corbin lit the candle of passion for 13-year-old Gavin Gawthorp from Villa Grove. Gawthorp's dad, Phillip Gawthorp, is an assistant coach at Villa Grove-Heritage and watched his son fall out of love with the game. It was hard for Phillip Gawthorp to stomach.
Corbin, though, saw a way to re-ignite the love. He threatened not to speak to Gavin if he walked away from the game. It was a tactic most often used between two friends, not between one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and a JFL football player. But it worked. Gavin is playing JFL and plans to play in high school. Corbin sees a future beyond that.
"He's going to the NFL," Corbin said.
Without the reassurance, Gavin would have walked away from the game. Did he stay because of the Illini trio?
"One hundred percent," Phillip Gawthorp said.
“It’s really fun," Gavin said. "I’ve watched him in college football. He’s really good. I’m trying to be better than him. I’m playing JFL this year and I’m going to be wide receiver."
Each of the players pay close attention in the fall when their coaches are lined up for the Illini. Boyd Brewer turns off his Xbox and watches the Illini; the whole family are fans. He'll hop on the internet and look up stats for the players, particularly Corbin.
Joy Shanks, Gavin's aunt, said the some of the players used to look at the Illini like superstars. But, she said, they put a stop to that quickly, urging the flag football players to see them as friends. Of course, there's something cool for a junior high kid to see their friend playing in the Big Ten.
“They love it," Shanks said. "I think it’s nice, especially for my nephew. He can say, ‘Hey, I know him.’ It’s, like, a big deal."
Harding is the new kid on the block this season, replacing Phillips. He wasn't at all hesitant to join Corbin and Williams, but he needed to feel things out at the first practice. He watched from afar to see how the veterans coached kids nearly a decade younger than them. As time went on, he settled in as the team's defensive coordinator.
He roams the sidelines, talking to any player who will listen to him, and picks up players in celebration. Pfeifer was an easy lift and Harding held him into the sky.
“We’re all passionate and involved," Harding said. "Just to see a smile on a kid’s face makes my day. To pick a kid up and get involved, I’m running down the sideline with him and he’s laughing and enjoying it. Stuff like that is irreplaceable. You can’t match it. Kids are our future and I definitely loved being involved and being a coach with the team."
Rahn, who has a strong relationship with several members of the Illini after his son, Colton, formed a bond with them, will admit he was shocked to find out Corbin was returning for a second year in the program. Jason Rahn, though, obviously met the Illini with open arms.
“The kids absolutely love it," Jason Rahn said. "It’s been great. It brings a little more competition to the program, but it’s been beneficial. They’ve done really, really well with the kids on all levels. Any of the players from any team can go up and talk to them. I think we’ve even had a couple of the littles go up and get autographs from them."
So what drives Corbin to make the trip to Tuscola? To coach youth flag football with a cornfield a mere 50 yards away from the field at Ervin Park?
“God," Corbin said. "I think the only reason I have whatever gifts and whatever talents he’s given me, whatever gift of work ethic I have is because of him. The only reason I have it is because he wants me to give back. It’s not for my own pleasure or for my own glory. It doesn’t matter about that.
"You can be as great as you want, but if you don’t bring anybody up with you, it doesn’t matter."