High school football notebook: TJ McMillen commits to Illinois, Kaleb Brown wins another medal, Tony Phillips transfers

St. Francis’ TJ McMillen has been around football as long as he can remember.

Longer than that actually.

“Right around when I was born, my dad played in the Arena Bowl in Las Vegas,” said McMillen, whose father Bob played and coached in the Arena Football League and entered its Hall of Fame in 2013.

“It’s really cool,” McMillen said. “He’s taught me so much from a coaching perspective, being at the top. The people that he’s introduced me to, a lot of people dream they could meet.”

McMillen is getting some good connections on his own now. The state’s No. 14 prospect in the class of 2023 has 32 Division I offers — 14 from Power Five schools — and is heading to Illinois after committing on May 21.

The 6-3, 270-pound center’s connection to the Illini dates back to the tenure of previous coach Lovie Smith. “I’ve been talking to them since my freshman year,” McMillen said.

That didn’t change when Illinois moved on from Smith and hired Bret Bielema.

“The one thing I liked is how straight up they were about what they expected me to do if I went there,” McMillen said.

Another thing he likes is Bielema’s track record of getting his centers drafted by the NFL. “He says he saw all the intangibles in me he saw in them,” McMillen said.

Being part of a program on the rise also is attractive. The Illini were 5-7 in Bielema’s first season, but two of those wins were over Top 20 teams (Penn State and Minnesota).

“You could tell how much better Illinois was getting” as the season went on, McMillen said.

Committing this soon wasn’t something McMillen expected to do. He originally planned to spend the summer making college visits with an eye to deciding in July, August or even early in his senior season.

But Illinois checked all the boxes, so he saw no reason to wait. Now McMillen, who also plays baseball at St. Francis, can be a kid the next few months.

“I’m really excited I can say that in my high school career, I finally have a normal summer,” he said. “Hanging out with my friends, (preparing for) football and baseball.”

Two-sport star

Kaleb Brown’s future clearly is on the football field.

The outgoing St. Rita senior is a consensus top-80 player nationally and the No. 2 player in the state, headed off to play receiver at Ohio State.

But the 5-10, 195-pound speedster hasn’t walked away from track. At last weekend’s Class 2A state finals in Charleston, Brown won his fourth career state medal. He anchored the Mustangs’ fifth-place 400-meter relay team, which also featured 200 state champ EJ Nwagwu.

Why continue in a second sport? “Just to get a different grind and stay in shape really,” Brown said. “Mold my body into the best version it could be. It was definitely important to do this.”

He believes he’s a better football player for having continued with his second sport, something that’s not going to end.

“Track and football, they work hand in hand,” Brown said. “When I go to college, I definitely plan to do some track workouts.”

On the move

Another football and track star also is heading to a different school in the fall.

Tony Phillips has swept the Class 1A 100 and 200 titles in each of his first two seasons, and he’s one of the rising football prospects in the class of 2024.

After his most recent track titles last weekend, Phillips announced on social media that he’s leaving Bishop McNamara. He later confirmed that he’s heading across town to Kankakee, joining two of the state’s premier programs.

The Kays were the Class 5A football runners-up last fall and won the Class 2A boys track championship last weekend.

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