Eastern Washington running back Antoine Custer’s smile is big and often contagious.
His straight, beaming white teeth and social disposition were made for the silver screen.
So was his nationally revered high school football team.
Before churning out big yards at EWU the last four seasons, Custer starred at De La Salle, a storied, California-based program with a decadeslong tradition of producing NCAA and NFL talent.
It’s been the subject of documentaries and the 2014 film “When the Game Stands Tall,” which grossed $30 million at the box office.
Starring actor Jim Caviezel as De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur, the Hollywood sports drama depicts the end of the Spartans’ 151-game win streak in 2004 at the hands of Bellevue, Washington, and the lessons Ladouceur helped instill into his players.
It also depicted real-life tragedy.
Two days before he was set to leave for the University of Oregon, Custer’s cousin and former Spartans star linebacker Terrance Kelly was shot and killed by a 15-year-old boy.
Ten years later, Custer wore Kelly’s semiretired jersey No. 28 for the Spartans, the same number he’s worn the last four years in Cheney.
Ladouceur retired a year before Custer lettered at De La Salle, where he was a three-year starter who amassed 4,429 yards and 66 touchdowns. The team enjoyed back-to-back state titles and finished ranked No. 1 in the MaxPreps.com national poll.
Its tradition didn’t waver.
“You know about the school and the brand of winning,” said Custer, who leads the Big Sky Conference in rushing yards (503). “They teach you team bonding, brotherhood and how work ethic are important.”
A 25-minute drive from Berkeley, California, De La Salle was loaded with Power 5 talent when Custer played running back and defensive back, including Kahlil McKenzie, who signed with the University of Tennessee and is an offensive guard on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad.
Custer, who admittedly didn’t have the big-school recruiting aesthetics at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, also generated Football Bowl Subdivision interest, but not much.
Washington State made some calls. So did San Jose State and Wyoming, the latter wanting Custer to play defensive back.
When Eastern Washington inquired, Custer said, he didn’t know much about the FCS level.
“They were real with me,” said Custer, who first experienced snow during his recruiting visit in Cheney. “And they won a lot.”
Months later, Custer was wearing a cherry-red helmet, lined up alongside Gage Gubrud as a true freshman running back in his first collegiate game against Washington State in 2016. He scored a first-quarter touchdown in the Eagles’ 45-42 upset.
“It was crazy, a lot of energy,” Custer said of his first college game. “I grew up watching the Pac-12 and Washington State, and it gave me confidence that I could play against that level.”
Custer has rushed for 2,320 yards and 29 touchdowns since, and has hauled in 81 passes for 686 yards and three touchdowns.
He runs inside and outside the tackles, and has been a viable receiving threat.
“Growing up, I really liked (retired NFL star) Marshall Faulk,” Custer said. “He wasn’t the biggest guy, and was good at running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield.”
A second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection as a sophomore in 2017, Custer was named EWU’s Offensive Player of the Year. He was named to the All-Big Sky first team in the 2018 preseason, but injuries slowed down his progress.
Custer missed a few games during EWU’s run to the 2018 FCS national title game, but still managed 718 yards and eight touchdowns.
With injuries and departures decimating the Eagles’ running back group this season, Custer has been clear-cut No. 1 ballcarrier all season, averaging a career-high 18.6 carries and 83.6 yards a game.
“To overcome the injuries I had last season, it’s been a good year for me,” Custer said. “I wanted to improve as both a teammate and player.”
EWU (2-4, 1-1 Big Sky) entertains Northern Colorado (1-5, 1-1) on Saturday at Roos Field, a homecoming game in which the Eagles will be aiming for a school-record 12th consecutive home victory.
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