CHAMPAIGN — Jalen Booker’s competitive football career was slated to conclude this week.
The recent Champaign Central graduate earned a spot in the 29th Order of the Eastern Star All-Star Game, scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Maroa-Forsyth High School.
A strong senior campaign preceded this point, as Booker compiled 568 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as well as 49 defensive tackles under first-year Maroons coach Tim Turner.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Booker said. “I like the way he ran it this season. I actually liked it more (than past years). I feel like he set me up and put me in places to succeed very well.”
Saturday should have offered one last hoorah for Booker on the football field, who’s pursuing a college basketball career.
Instead, Booker will be attending a funeral for his aunt, Chimere Riddle.
The former Champaign resident died on June 15 after battling a brain tumor. She was just 33 years old.
“It occurred earlier this year,” Booker said of Riddle’s diagnosis. “She kind of just went brain dead. It was an instant.”
Booker said his family is a close-knit one, even though Riddle most recently lived in New Mexico. He recalls spending earlier years of his life with Riddle’s children and other cousins.
When Riddle’s service wound up coinciding with the Eastern Star game, Booker knew what he had to do.
“There was no choice to be made,” he said. “I had to go see my auntie one last time.”
Booker’s official last football game, then, will go down as a 31-28 defeat at Carbondale in the Class 5A postseason’s first round last October.
It ended a bounceback campaign for the Maroons, who went 2-7 the season before and were bringing back a junior-heavy lineup for 2018.
“We came into my senior season preparing pretty hard,” Booker said. “We were working out ... four days a week just trying to get ready.”
Booker became the go-to guy when Central needed a few yards to avoid punting away a possession.
“(Turner) gave me a lot of confidence,” Booker said. “On third down, he was like, ‘Give him the ball,’ and I was like, ‘All right.’”
That allowed Booker to develop what he called “a little more swagger,” an element he believes was critical to the Maroons’ first playoff qualification since 2015.
As well as his eventual invitation to this weekend’s festivities.
“I wasn’t thinking about (any all-star invites),” Booker said. “When I got the paper in the mail I was just like, ‘Hey, finally something. The work paid off and somebody recognizes it.’”
So why isn’t Booker putting on the pads at the collegiate level?
Because his final run with Central basketball also left an impact, with the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Booker a regular starter at point guard for a 3A sectional semifinalist.
“I was stuck in between football and basketball for a while,” Booker said. “I just fell in love with (basketball) again and decided I would hoop in college.”
That’ll be at Missouri-based Culver-Stockton College, an NAIA program, giving Booker his desired distance of not too close, but not too far from Champaign.
That means he’ll be keeping an eye on what Central football does in Turner’s second season at the helm this upcoming fall.
And hoping the roster can garner a few more all-star game invites come this time next year.
“I expect them to do good things,” Booker said. “(They have to) leave it all out there. Don’t take any game for granted, because it’s going to go by pretty fast. You’re going to wish you still were here.”
Stars in the making
The 29th Order of the Eastern Star All-Star football game will take place at 7 p.m. today, with numerous local graduates involved at Maroa-Forsyth High School. A look at the area participants, all of whom are on the East Squad roster coached by Argenta-Oreana’s Steve Kirk:
Argenta-Oreana — Garrett Gloede, WR/S; Gunnar Moore, WR/CB; Michael Redpath, OL/DL; Colton Robinson, WR/S; Makhi Stanley, RB/DE.
Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond — Caleb Nettles, RB/LB.
Centennial — Tyson Burton, WR/DB; Robbie Pulliam, OL/DL.
Cerro Gordo/Bement — Matthew Guffey, RB/S.
Monticello — Asher Bradd, WR/CB; Brandun Burton, OL/DL; Braden Snyder, QB/DL.
Rantoul — Angelo Brown, QB/LB; Corbin Lantis, OL/DL.
Sullivan — Cullen Dyer, TE/DE; Leman Jones, OL/DL
Tuscola — Michael Badgett, RB/LB; Will Little, RB/LB; Luke Sluder, QB/DB; Brayden VonLanken, OL/DL.
Unity — Owen Martin, OL/DL; Evan Miebach, QB/DB; Trey Warnes, WR/DB.
Villa Grove/Heritage — Zach Champagne, QB/DE; Austin Grimm, WR/LB; Cole Thomas, WR/DB.