For all of the football instruction, drills and technique that the 12 members of the Rams High School Player Development tournament team has participated in for the better part of the past two months, the lessons they left Indianapolis with over the weekend extend far beyond a football field.
Following a dynamic start to the national H.S.P.D. tournament in which the Rams burst to a 7-0 start in round robin play and proved to the other 31 teams representing their NFL city that there is some great football being played at the high school level right here in St. Louis, the dozen local high school players representing St. Louis entered the single elimination portion of the tournament with plenty of confidence.
But as fast as that confidence was gained and the lessons of winning with grace and humility were ingrained, they learned perhaps the hardest lesson of all: how to handle sudden defeat.
For Ritenour junior Devin Alexander, CBC senior Bert Birdsall, Hazelwood Central senior Keith Brent, Fox senior Tyler Brewer, O’Fallon senior Greg Gibson, Mehlville junior Brendan Moore, O’Fallon senior Darius Mosely, CBC junior Zach Muniz, CBC senior Aarion Penton, Warrenton senior Devin Roberts, Francis Howell Junior Brett Siebenshuh and MICDS sophomore Cole Sigmund, the dream of defeating the best the rest of the country had to offer was gone in an instant.
So it was that the Rams’ H.S.P.D. team dropped a 17-14 last-second decision to Arizona in the NFC West “championship” game in the second round of the national tournament. The Rams finished their time in Indianapolis with an impressive 8-1 mark and their heads held high according to Rams fan development coordinator Kyle Eversgerd, who also doubles as one of the team’s coaches, along with Matt Biermann, the President and Founder of Elite Football Academy.
“The bottom line is we aren’t in the business of changing the way you run routes or throw the ball, the big picture is it’s the game of football and none of those kids will go back to their teams and think they should run a corner route any different,” Eversgerd said. “It’s more of the big perspective of this is how quickly you can lose or the intensity of a tight game where we’ve to score now or we have to call time out here.”
While those lessons will certainly come in handy for the young players down the road, it didn’t exactly ease the sting of a wrenching loss in the second round of the single elimination portion of the tournament.
After playing the seven round robin games against the other three NFC West teams and the four AFC West squads, the teams are then re-seeded for the elimination portion of the tournament. In a bit of quirky scheduling, the seeds are only based on the idea of another round of games within the division.
So the Rams were forced to play San Francisco again in the first round, a game the top-seeded Rams won 27-14 before a rematch with the Cardinals for the NFC West division.
That game brought even more drama than the first meeting, a game the Rams won by the same margin they fell by in their lone loss. After scoring to cut Arizona’s lead to three (teams get seven points for touchdowns and three points for interceptions), the Rams got the ball back and had an opportunity to pull out the victory in the closing seconds.
With 12 seconds to go and the ball inside the 20, the Rams hoped to take two shots at the end zone from an area they had been wildly effective in the tournament’s first seven games. But as quarterback Brett Siebenshuh dropped back to pass and scanned the field for an open receiver, he was stopped in his tracks by a whistle.
The whistle called for a violation of the rule that states the quarterback has to get rid of the ball in four seconds. The quick whistle essentially serves as a “sack” and denied the Rams the chance to run another play. In an instant, the game was over, leaving the team disappointed in the finish despite its terrific play throughout the tournament.
“When something happens like that in the last 30 seconds, you are kind of like, ‘Wow, it’s over,’” Eversgerd said. “But the whole experience for the kids on the national tournament team; I can’t say enough about them.”
The stunning finish didn’t overshadow a weekend in which the Rams made a statement about the quality of football being played in St. Louis and, even more the point, the quality of the program the Rams have built in conjunction with the Elite Football Academy and the H.S.P.D. program.
The buildup for the tournament began in the planning stages as far back as late February. The players began going to the H.S.P.D. camps on May 29 and after three of those camps, the selected players participated in a week of practices at ContinuityX Training Center before heading to Indianapolis.
Along the way, Eversgerd, Biermann and the other volunteers made it a point to train the players on more than football fundamentals. That included crash courses on everything from how to handle media interviews to the importance of being on time to every little detail that would help build character.
“Doing this for the third year, it’s all about the stuff other people don’t see,” Eversgerd said. “I think the biggest thing is you have got 12 kids that are high school football players and you get off the bus in downtown Indianapolis at a nice hotel and the moment you get off the bus you walk in and there’s the NFL Network filming you and in your meetings. Then you go to the Nike room and they are giving you all of this cool Nike gear. Then you go into another room and the NFL Network is doing a team photo and they are filming guys and interviewing guys. The thing we prepared our kids for that was different was the stuff that wasn’t on the football field.”
Aside from the camps and practices that included visits from current and former Rams players and coaches at camps and a special pep talk from coach Jeff Fisher before the team departed for Indianapolis.
While Eversgerd – who served as the team’s game manager – and Biermann – who handled calling the game from the team’s 22-play playbook – knew they had some talent going with them to Indianapolis, they didn’t know how that group would coalesce upon arrival.
With 12 players with different personalities from nine different area schools, the group might as well have been playing together for years based on its opening performance.
After a close 20-14 victory in the opener against the 49ers, the Rams hit their groove in Friday’s opening round-robin games. They followed with wins against the Seahawks (28-21), Cardinals (17-14), Chargers (30-0) and Chiefs (41-14).
On the heels of that victory against a talented Kansas City group, even the coaches realized they had a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing.
“We walked away from that going ‘Wow, we’ve got a chance to make some noise tomorrow,’” Eversgerd said. “But again, you keep your composure because the tourney format is one and done and as quick as those games go by, you get an interception here and they score on a long bomb the next series, then your back is against the wall. The thing that stood out the most those first seven games in pool play was every time we needed a play, we did it. We called timeout and drew something up. We needed an interception, we got one. I would be willing to bet that every kid on offense had a touchdown and every kid on defense had an interception. It really was that type of team effort.”
On Saturday morning, the Rams picked up where they left off; beating the Broncos (17-14) and Raiders (31-24) to finish pool play undefeated.
Along the way, the Rams group provided a perfect blueprint of the type of team effort required to win in such a fast-paced competition. By Eversgerd’s estimation every player on offense scored a touchdown and every defensive player recorded an interception.
While singling out any one player’s performance doesn’t do justice to the work done by every player on the team, Siebenshuh stands out as a prime example of the way the Rams’ program has helped in player development.
In his first two years at Francis Howell, Siebenshuh threw a grand total of one pass, an interception. By the time the weekend was over, he’d thrown for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
That’s just one example of a kid who will be returning to his high school team with more confidence as a result of participating in the program.
“It was absolutely a team deal,” Eversgerd said. “For the kids, it didn’t matter where you were from or what school you went to, we were all representing the Rams. It showed on the field. One game you had a kid that stands out and he makes a bunch of plays and the next game he gets maybe one ball thrown his way. That’s just how it worked. We played as a team, we won as a team and we lost as a team in the last one.”
Although the Rams couldn’t quite get the opportunity to knock off Miami, the team that went on to win for the fourth year in a row, they proved in their nine-game stint that while St. Louis doesn’t have the reputation as a prep football hotbed like Florida or Texas, there are plenty of players I town fully capable of keeping up with anyone.
“You have to imagine the top level talent from each of those 32 markets is at that tournament and the record indicates that we played seven games and won all of them,” Eversgerd said. “The proof is in the pudding. I feel like on a national scale, we definitely left our mark at that tournament and across the NFL. Going undefeated in pool play and representing our area the way we did, you have to make the case that we’ll take on anybody.”
Upon the team’s return to St. Louis on Sunday afternoon, the Rams’ 12 players went their own ways but not before they became friends on Facebook, followed one another on Twitter or exchanged telephone numbers.
The wins they accumulated in Indianapolis felt as good as the loss hurt but what they took away from the experience figures to go well beyond a won-loss record.
“We’ve got guys that are going to be friends forever because they shared this experience and it’s basically because of the game of football,” Eversgerd said. “There are just a lot of things that go into it that have nothing to do with your play on the field. They showed a lot of character and being good people. If there was a championship trophy for the best kids at the tournament, by far we’d have been right there with anybody.
“It was truly a great experience. As quickly as it ended and as the tournament goes, you could tell the kids were very grateful for the impact that this entire process had on them. I can’t say enough about how they represented the Rams, themselves, their families but more important St. Louis football on a national scale.”