Akouris: Former University Park Lions roar into semis
By Tina Akouris email@example.com November 11, 2012 8:50PM
From left, Crete-Monee's Laquon Treadwell, Devontay Merrill, and Jehari Butler, Shepard's Londell Lee, and Lincoln-Way West's Lavonte Blackful all alumni of the University Park Lions, were the featured speakers Sunday at the Lions' awards banquet at DiNolfo's in Mokena. Photo by Jean Lachat for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 13, 2012 10:44AM
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Crete-Monee is 12-0 and headed to the state football semifinals this weekend. And it probably should not surprise, either, that Lincoln-Way West advanced to the quarterfinals only to lose to Joliet Catholic by a point in overtime.
That’s because some of the players on both teams started their football careers with the University Park Lions youth football program.
Crete-Monee’s Laquon Treadwell, Jehari Butler and Devontay Merrill, Lincoln-Way West’s Lavonte Blackful and Shepard’s Lonnie Lee spoke at the organization’s annual banquet at DiNolfo’s on Sunday in Mokena. They all were part of the Lions’ 2005 Pee-Wee and 2007 JV Will-Cook-Kankakee Super Bowl championship teams.
The message they tried to get across to the roomful of youth football players was to work hard, keep your grades up and “stay out of trouble,” according to Butler.
The soft-spoken and reserved Treadwell was probably the biggest draw. The wide receiver/defensive back/kicker has helped the Warriors to an undefeated season and himself to a state and national No. 1 ranking at wide receiver with 21 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards. On defense, he has four interceptions and 47 tackles.
Treadwell, at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, said his college choice is down to a final five: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Mississippi, Michigan and Michigan State. Treadwell is a four-star recruit, according to Scout.com and Rivals.com. He said he plans on announcing where he will attend college before the February national signing date.
“I didn’t have a dream school growing up,” Treadwell said. “This is good stress and you can’t really get overwhelmed by it. Some players do get (stressed), but it’s a blessing to me.”
And it all started with the Lions at University Park.
“I didn’t start playing football until I was 10 years old, and that’s when I actually started focusing on football and my true colors showed,” Treadwell said. “We moved to University Park and I was outside just playing catch and one of my friends told me I should try out for the team. And I just ran with it from there.”
Lee, who started playing with the Lions when he was 8 years old, agrees with Treadwell that the Lions molded him into the player he is now.
“It taught me the game and they always wanted us to be good and they expected nothing less and instilled discipline in us,” Lee said. “It stayed with me from then on. Before I played organized football, I used to just play (football) outside and I had a few friends like Blackful who played for the Lions.”
It’s easy for kids in the Lions program to look up to Treadwell and the others. Most already are mentoring some players when they have time and all five want to work more with Lions players in the future.
Treadwell, Butler and Merrill are on an undefeated Warriors team that is one game away from playing for a state championship. All that stands in their way is Lemont.
“It’s a testament to us and to University Park Lions,” Merrill said. “My coaches told me never to give up on what I wanted to do. I still go to all their games and I’m always at their practices any time I have the time to go.”
The day after Blackful’s Lincoln-Way West team lost in heartbreaking fashion to Joliet Catholic — a failed 2-point conversion ended the game — the stocky transfer from Bloom was able to flush the defeat and focus on motivating youth.
“Playing for University Park taught us what football is,” Blackful said. “We know that from playing at 5 or 6 years old what is expected when you come onto a football field, which was reiterated when I transferred. Just from playing with the same kids and seeing the same kids that you played with succeed at other schools gives you a boost. It makes you think, ‘I can be at the same level he is.’ ”
Blackful, who also wrestles and said he will have to decide this winter between playing football in college and wrestling, sees a lot of himself in the kids who are coming up through the ranks in the Lions program.
“It’s nice to see these kids on the same path that I took as a kid,” he said. “Certain kids came back and mentored me, so I’d like to come back and teach kids just like I was taught as a young kid.”