CHARLESTON — Back in 2013, Aaron Gooch, Nick Atoyebi and James Sheehan formed quite the trio of wide receivers for Homewood-Flossmoor High School, a traditional football power in the Chicago suburbs. Never in their wildest dreams did all three think they would be playing together, let alone starting together, again.
Gooch and Atoyebi both graduated, and Gooch walked on at Eastern Illinois. Atoyebi originally went to Southern Illinois before transferring and walking on at EIU. The next year, EIU offered Sheehan a partial scholarship and he joined his two former teammates. That alone was a proud moment for the three Homewood-Flossmoor graduates to be on the same team.
It got better. All three have since earned full scholarships, and in the season-opening game against Arkansas, all three earned a start. Just like in high school, all three were starting at wide receiver for the Panthers.
It's kind of like high school all over again for the three.
"It's kind of crazy. Sometimes we will be talking about our high school days and reminiscing on the games," Gooch said. "There are times where we can remember certain games and we were all in (trips-formation) and five years later, we are in the same formation. Running the same plays. It's crazy. I am happy for them and happy to be here myself. This is great to be able to play guys that I've already played with."
EIU coach Kim Dameron has been in the coaching game for a while, and even he is taken aback by the fact that three players from the same high school at the same position are all starting at that same position in college.
"The crazy thing is that they all came here different ways. Two of them start as walk-ons. It shows you what kind of program Homewood-Flossmoor has," Dameron said. "They all have come here and done everything we've asked them to and busted their butts. They are good students and two of them are going to graduate after this semester. I love having all three of them and sad to see two of them go."
Sheehan said it's very impressive that all three have earned starting roles this season.
"Three guys all from the same town, same high school. A lot of the credit goes back to our high school and the coaches we have at H-F. I feel we are all hungry and reliable players," said Sheehan, who is a junior and is third on the team with 40 receptions for 449 yards. "(H-F) coach (Craig Buzea) has followed us and sees what we are doing. He will shoot us a text saying 'Congrats.' Us three being back playing, you don't think about it. But when you look at it, it's pretty cool that we are all starting."
It's probably the most improbable for Gooch to be playing with his two friends. Gooch was undersized for a wide receiver coming out of high school, so he didn't get many looks. Former EIU defensive back Vince Speller, who played against Gooch in high school at Chicago Mt. Carmel, convinced him to walk on at EIU.
"I sent my tape to him and he showed it to coach Dameron and (then-assistant coach Kane) Wommack, and they liked what they saw and took a chance on me," Gooch said.
He's now 5'9, 170 pounds and is still a bit undersized. That hasn't stopped him, though. Gooch had made start as a redshirt freshman, five as a sophomore and four last season. He's started in every game this season. Gooch has crossed the 1,000-yard receiving mark in his career and is 21st all-time in EIU history with 1,220 receiving yards.
Gooch has gone from undersized walk-on to 1,000-yard scholarship player during his time at EIU. It's nothing new for Gooch, who at one point was told he was too small play varsity at Homewood-Flossmoor.
"Out of high school I got a lot of 'you are too small to play' but I knew what I was capable of and being hard work, I was going to get to where I wanted to be. It's been a journey," Gooch said. "It's not new. My whole life I've been an underdog being smaller than everyone. It's always been me trying to prove someone wrong and that's been my motivation."
It's Gooch's and Atoyebi's last home game today (Saturday). Gooch is fourth in the conference with 52 receptions and is sixth with 606 receiving yards. Atoyebi is fourth on the team with 25 receptions for 198 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't have a catch before this season.
Atoyebi was at SIU when Gooch convinced Atoyebi to come to EIU and walk on. Atoyebi joined the team officially in 2015. In 2016 he was a member of the scout team and as a junior, he played in 10 games, primarily on special teams. Atoyebi has since earned a scholarship and is a starting wide receiver for the Panthers as he lines up for his last home game against Austin Peay at 1 p.m. today (Saturday).
"It's been a long journey and I've enjoyed the experience. It's been good to finally get on the field and really show what I can do. Now I have to finish strong for the last two games," Atoyebi. "It means a lot to me to earn this. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I had to really earn it and I've been working at it all summer. It's because of these two and the guys on the team motivating me to be the best that I can."
Atoyebi couldn't pick which one of the two he's going to miss more next year.
"We had no idea this was going to happen," Atoyebi said. "I am going to miss them, the team and all of my brothers."
Sheehan said he's going to miss both of them equally next season.
"We have different relationships. Gooch and I will get hyped together, and Nick and I are legit brothers," Sheehan said. "I have another year left and to see them both go, it hurts. All good things have to come to an end. I am going to miss these guys a lot."
Gooch said it's going to be tough not being around Atoyebi and Sheehan next year after spending about the last nine years of their life around one another.
"Like Nick said, we didn't know we were going to end up at the same place. It was like we are back where we started. I am going to miss them both, especially football-wise," Gooch said. "We are all in the same area, and I will still see them around but I am going to miss playing with them. Nick and I will be back next year to support James and the team."