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Documentary “89 Blocks” shows football’s impact on East St. Louis players, community

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. - The East St. Louis High School football team will be in the national television spotlight Sunday.

“89 Blocks” is the title of a documentary that chronicles the East St. Louis Flyers undefeated championship season in 2016.  It also tells the story how in one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities, football is a reprieve for the players. When they step on the field, the challenges that face them and their community can be forgotten for a time.

“There are kids here who are prevented from becoming who they can be because of the invisible fence that exists around these 89 blocks,” said Emmy-winning director Josh Oshinsky.

The director said the title "89 blocks" refers to the the footprint of East St. Louis. He said it's also connected to a quote from former player Jeff Thomas, who was on the 2016 state championship team and now plays for the University of Miami. Oshinsky paraphrased Thomas as saying, "I want to see if there's more to life than these 89 blocks before I die."

On Tuesday, juniors and seniors got to see the documentary, which was produced by Sports Illustrated and LeBron James. It will air Sunday at 3:30pm on FOX 2 as part of FOX Sports Films new feature-length documentary series, “MAGNIFY.”

"I like it cause of we got to see where we live," said Eric Owens, a senior and Flyers linebacker. "I love that documentary, man, I wish I could take it home with me right now."

Oshinsky said cameras were embedded with the players on and off the field from August to January in the 2016 season.

"There's a lot of pieces of East St. Louis that are sensationalized, and we wanted to humanize this story as opposed to sensationalizing this story," he said.

The documentary is a message of hope.

"I think anytime you're in these urban settings, it's tough to separate life from athletics, but athletics even for the fan is a great diversion," said Principal Justin Moore, East St. Louis High School.

The players said they tend to forget about the crime and poverty in their hometown when they step on the field.

"I try not to bring my worries to the field; it's just all about football. Football takes all my worries away, that's the thing I love about it; and my teammates, they cheer you up a lot," said Jarell Anderson, senior and Flyers running back.