When Kraig Appleton and Terry Hawthorne met years ago at Lincoln Middle School, they often talked about reaching high school together and donning the orange and royal blue of the East St. Louis football team.
Their ultimate dream was to lead the Flyers to a state title.
A program rich in tradition, East St. Louis won six Illinois state crowns under legendary coach Bob Shannon between 1979-91, including three straight from 1983-85. The 1985 team went 14-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. Players the caliber of NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow and All-Pro linebacker Bryan Cox have previously worn East St. Louis uniforms.
While it's been 17 years since the Flyers last won a state title, Appleton and Hawthorne have always appreciated the team's impressive history.
"Everyone wants to be a Flyer, most definitely," Appleton says.
Now seniors, Appleton and Hawthorne have added their names to the list of East St. Louis greats by emerging as the country's most lethal wide receiver duo from the Class of 2009. Hawthorne is rated the nation's No. 10 receiver and No. 83 overall recruit in the ESPNU 150, while Appleton checks in at No. 14 among receivers and No. 107 overall.
East St. Louis head coach Darren Sunkett could see the star potential in both players before either had played a down on varsity. When Appleton was in eighth grade, Sunkett predicted he would be one of the nation's top players by the time he was a senior. He said the same thing to Hawthorne after his freshman year.
The praise caught both players by surprise.
"He told me I had the size, speed and talent to be a top recruit," recalls Appleton, who at press time was considering scholarship offers from the likes of Illinois, LSU, Wisconsin, Texas Tech and Arkansas. "I didn't feel I couldn't do it. I just didn't see it."
Appleton and Hawthorne eventually developed a confidence level to match their dominance on the gridiron. Appleton began to believe he could make it big when he earned a spot on the Flyers' varsity squad as a freshman. He may not have been an integral member of the offense, but he showed flashes of greatness when given the opportunity, including a memorable 13-yard touchdown reception in a game against Beaumont.
Since then, the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has turned into an absolute nightmare for defensive backs. With a devastating combo of size, speed and hands, Appleton can beat teams deep or pick them apart over the middle.
"Kraig is just a freak of nature," Sunkett says.
Appleton also sees spot duty at cornerback whenever the Flyers go up against a tall, physical receiver they need to shut down. Last season, he was selected to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch All-Metro first team after catching 42 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns. He added 14 tackles and an interception on defense.
While Appleton spent his ninth-grade year on varsity, Hawthorne played for the freshman team his first season before earning a call-up as a sophomore. He had his breakout varsity game in the second round of the Class 7A state playoffs that year when he caught a touchdown pass, converted a key first down on a fake punt late in the game and scored the game-winning touchdown to lead the Flyers past Edwardsville, 33-27.
Then last season, Hawthorne became a two-way starter at wide receiver and free safety and proceeded to dominate. He joined Appleton on the All-Metro first team after recording 45 receptions for 1,065 yards and 15 touchdowns. He added 40 tackles and three interceptions on defense and also served as the team's punter, averaging 44.5 yards per boot.
Simply put, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder is a playmaker.
"Terry can beat you short and deep," Sunkett says. "He's cat quick."
Contending with one receiver of Appleton and Hawthorne's ability would be tough enough. Put the two together, however, and you create an impossible scenario for opposing defensive coordinators to deal with.
"I'm not the only person on the team that opponents can key on," says Hawthorne, who has committed to Illinois. "They have to key on both of us."
Hawthorne and Appleton's rise to success isn't by accident. They are intense competitors who treat every practice like it's a game, which benefits everyone around them.
"It's a privilege going up against them every day in practice because they make me better," says teammate Tommie Hopkins, a senior strong safety who has committed to Illinois.
Appleton and Hawthorne keep that intensity going strong into the spring as well by competing for the Flyers' track team, which won the Illinois Class AA state title last season. Individually, Appleton won his second straight state title in the 300-meter hurdles and was the Belleville News-Democrat Boys' Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
"You can talk the talk, but you've got to show it," Sunkett says. "These guys never miss an offseason practice or workout. The younger guys see that, and you hope they learn that and do the same thing."
The Flyers hope that dedication pays off in the form of a football state title this season. Two years ago, East St. Louis fell to Providence Catholic in the Class 7A state quarterfinals. Last season, the Flyers lost to Wheaton Warrenville South in the semis.
This year, East St. Louis appears poised to get over the hump. Quarterback Detchauz Wray is back under center after earning Post-Dispatch Sophomore of the Year honors last season, and he has two extremely motivated star wideouts to work with.
"We always dreamed of leading the Flyers to a state title," Appleton says.
Now they plan on turning that middle school dream into a high school reality.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.