Only three weeks into the 2015 season, Antoine Custer Jr. is already making his case as to why he should be one of the most highly recruited football players in the state of California.
After a stellar junior season at Concord’s De La Salle High School, in which he rushed for over 1,900 yards and scored 26 touchdowns en route to a state championship, the South Berkeley native seems on pace to pick up right where he left off. The De La Salle Spartans are 2-1 and the outstanding play of Custer has contributed to much of the team’s success.
Custer is now in his senior season and hopes to have a breakout year so he can continue to impress college scouts and land a scholarship at one of the nation’s top universities. He’s already received several Division I scholarship offers and more are likely on the way.
It’s a dream he has worked hard to bring to reality since he was a kid playing for the Berkeley Cougars, the city’s only Pop Warner youth football league from the 1980s until around 2008.
“I started playing football when I was 6,” said Custer, who is now 17. “I just always had a natural love for the game. Growing up I would always see the Berkeley Cougars practicing at San Pablo Park and I just couldn’t wait until I was old enough to play.”
During his first year of football for the Cougars, in 2004, Custer proved to be a natural athlete. He was a star running back and helped lead his “Mighty Mite” team — which formed that year — to a league championship. The Might Mites were the youngest team in the Berkeley Cougars’ youth football league, for youth ages 5 to 7.
Custer, who is known to friends as “Twan,” had no idea his first year of football would lay the foundation for many more successful years to come.
“It started off just being something I did for fun,” said Custer. “As time went on and I began to progress and get better, I just started to find a passion for the game and began to take the game more seriously.”
The turning point that would launch Custer into the realm of being one of California’s highest recruits was when he decided he would attend De La Salle.
“It was my dad that really wanted me to go there,” said Custer. “I didn’t know much about it, but my cousin went there and they were really good at football.”
The private school has a nationally recognized football program and was profiled in the 2014 feature film “When the Game Stands Tall,” which was based on a 2003 book of the same name.
Custer’s cousin is former De La Salle standout Terrance Kelly, who was shot and killed in 2004 a few days before he was supposed to start at The University of Oregon after receiving a football scholarship. The guidance Custer received from his father and his admiration for Kelly, who was 18 when he was killed, is what ultimately led Custer to De La Salle.
“He (Terrance Kelly) influenced me on playing both sides of the ball,” said Custer. “He’s the reason I wear 28, because of the way he played the game. He was just amazing.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Custer. He lost not only a cousin he idolized to violence, but also lost friends to both violence and incarceration. It would have been easy for Custer to follow the same route, but he chose to do otherwise.
“I just stayed out of trouble by keeping myself busy with sports,” said Custer. “Having Coach Herb, Coach Todd and my dad as coaches also helped. They told us the things that could happen to kids that get in trouble and that the streets would always be there.”
Recalled former Pop Warner Coach Todd Walker — who has been recognized nationally for his efforts working to help local youth succeed against the odds — of Custer: “He’s a lovable kid. I’m so proud of him. He’s everything a coach would want. Humble, no attitude and he gives you his all.”
Custer’s humble beginnings helped earn him the respect of his peers, and the football community of Berkeley has always supported him, traveling around the area to watch him play.
Former Berkeley High running back and Washington State graduate Rickey Galvin has been watching Custer play since his first year on the Cougars.
“I think what makes Twan a really good player is the fact that he does way more than he is asked to do,” said Galvin. “If you watch the film, he’s not just playing one position, but he is all over the field making plays.”
Custer is coming off a junior season in which his team not only won a state title, but he himself was named “East Bay Football Player of the Year” by the San Jose Mercury News. Although Custer has had much success in the past and is off to a good start this season, he still feels like he has a lot to prove.
“I just want to show coaches that I can play both sides of the ball,” said Custer. “Most coaches know I can play running back but they want to see me play more defense.”
He has started his defensive campaign off strong this season, averaging five tackles a game and already returning an interception 58 yards for a touchdown against San Mateo’s Junipero Serra High School on Sept. 6.
The exciting play exhibited by Custer has already earned him four Division 1 scholarship offers with more on the way. ESPN.com has listed him as a three-star recruit — on a five-star scale — and has confirmed his scholarship offers from the University of Idaho, San Jose State University, University of Wyoming and Washington State.
If Custer can continue to produce the way he has over the past two seasons for the De La Salle Spartans, he will leave very little room for skepticism when it pertains to his ability to perform on the field.
Although he’s been playing now for more than 12 years, Custer said he had no idea he would end up excelling in the sport.
“To be honest, I guess just, growing up, it was a thing I wanted to do,” he said. “My dad played growing up so I knew it was just a thing I was going to do.”
See Antoine Custer and The Spartans host Orange Lutheran High School on Saturday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. at De La Salle High School, 1130 Winton Dr. in Concord.
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Delency Parham is a reporting intern for Berkeleyside who graduated from Berkeley High in 2010 and the University of Idaho in 2015.