Northeast High School senior Jon-Luke Peaker contemplated the memories of loved ones lost. His teammate, fellow senior Amara Yobouet, reminisced on escaping his native Ivory Coast as it was torn asunder by civil war.
Wednesday began national signing day’s early-signing period, which meant high school football players across Southeastern Pennsylvania signing national letters of intent, fulfilling dreams, chasing goals, and, in some cases, honoring the wishes of proud parents.
Earlier this year, Peaker lost his mother, Lashainnia Peaker, 53, to complications related to COVID-19. His oldest brother, Jamal Cross, 31, also died, of liver and heart disease.
On Wednesday, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back signed with Old Dominion University, moving one step closer to the dreams his family encouraged him to pursue.
First-year coach Eric Clark said Peaker is the team’s strongest student. In fact, Peaker even had an offer from Yale among his top four choices (also including Central Michigan and Toledo) after he pared down his 15 scholarship opportunities.
“Jon-Luke faced tragedies this year,” Clark said in a phone interview, “and that has fueled his fire.”
Clark said Peaker, whose nickname is “Juke,” increased his workload in the aftermath of the deaths in his family.
In June, Peaker told The Inquirer his mother wanted him to stay off the streets, stay away from drugs, and stay out of trouble.
“She wanted me to chase my dreams, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I want to make her proud.”
Yobouet, 18, doesn’t remember much about the flight that brought him to the U.S. in search of opportunity after his family fled civil war in Africa.
But long before some affectionately dubbed him “the African Aaron Donald,” the ferocious, 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive lineman was just a 10-year-old boy holding his mother’s hand on his first flight.
Yobouet also remembers the bright lights of New York City as the plane descended into John F. Kennedy International Airport.
On Wednesday, Yobouet, a native of Ivory Coast, signed with the University at Albany, a Division I school in the state where his quest for opportunity began.
“It feels great,” Yobouet said in a phone interview. “It’s crazy. To be going to college for free, a lot of people dream about that.”
Years ago, he was a boy walking miles in the hot African sun, dreaming about the end of a trek that never seemed to end.
It was the first time his family fled their home because of the Second Ivorian Civil War. About nine members of his family, he says, walked almost an entire day to his aunt’s house in the suburbs, where his mother, Massandie Yobouet, thought they would be safer.
Yobouet said overcoming adversity in the past has made him more confident about his future.
“It makes me feel good to know I can accomplish even more now,” he said.
Northeast senior receiver and defensive back Tyreek Chappell signed with Texas A&M. His teammate, defensive end Elijah Jeudy, signed a letter of intent on Wednesday, but will not make his choice public until a produced video is released by CBS Sports in January, his coach said.
Neumann Goretti senior do-it-all Tysheem Johnson signed with the University of Mississippi. Johnson, who his coach Albie Crosby said might also enroll early, could be an impact player as a freshman and possibly on both sides of the ball in the future.
Johnson’s teammate, Eric Gentry, is a 6-foot-7, 205-pounder, who signed with Arizona State to play outside linebacker for coach Herm Edwards. Crosby said Gentry is likely part of a new trend in college football that seeks taller linebackers who can shrink the field.
Charles Snowden, current senior outside linebacker at the University of Virginia, is an example of a 6-foot-7 linebacker. Talib Wright, another senior for the Saints, signed with Long Island University.
Cheltenham senior Sam Sykes, a fleet-footed receiver and standout sprinter in track, signed with St. Francis. Sykes becomes the third brother in his family to play college football. Nate Edwards, who is a year older, graduated from Cheltenham in 2019 and now plays football at Lackawanna Junior College. Another brother, Dan Rouse, played defensive back at Temple.