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Former Highlands star Sinclair signs with Explosion

Bill Beckner Jr.
| Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, 2:14 p.m.
Robert Morris QB Jeff Sinclair scoots by the Duquesne defense for a first down during the Colonials win at Joe walton Stadium on Saturday November 3, 2012.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris QB Jeff Sinclair scoots by the Duquesne defense for a first down during the Colonials win at Joe walton Stadium on Saturday November 3, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

His playing career wasn't exactly circling the drain, but Jeff Sinclair had his doubts about returning to the football field.

The former Highlands and Robert Morris quarterback had been playing with the Pittsburgh Colts semipro team but a joint separation in his left shoulder shortened his stay there and put his future in a holding pattern.

He served as an assistant coach at Highlands this fall, helping to guide the quarterbacks and special teams, while strengthening his aspirations to be a coach.

But he still saw himself zinging it down field and side-stepping defenders for first downs. It's what he knows.

“When it's all said and done, I want to get into coaching, but if I am done playing it will be because I can't play anymore,” said Sinclair, 24. “Football is my life; I have loved it since I was 5.

“I am fortunate and lucky that coach (Sam) Albert let me help out. But I'm ready to give it a shot and see what happens.”

Opportunities to try out for a few indoor teams surfaced during the WPIAL season, and Sinclair, whose shoulder had mostly healed, went for it.

He worked out at the Steel City Combine, tried out for the Pittsburgh Power — which later pulled the plug on operations — and lastly, displayed his dual-threat skills to the Erie Explosion.

The third option came to fruition, and Erie, the two-time defending champions of the Continental Indoor Football League — the team will move to the Professional Indoor Football League this season — offered Sinclair a contract. He accepted and signed a one-year deal.

Erie's coach is Shawn Liotta, who took over as Clairton's offensive coordinator this season. His brother, Jeremy, is an assistant coach and director of player personnel for the Explosion.

The Liottas are from Springdale.

“I was done with the Colts and wanted something a little more organized,” Sinclair said. “(The Liottas) are from the area, and I trust them. I think it will be the right move to play for them.”

Shawn Liotta didn't hesitate to bait Sinclair (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) at the tryout.

“He emailed me the contract right there,” Sinclair said. “There was lot of quick three-step stuff that I like to do, and I thought I did really well.”

“He reminded me a lot of a guy who used to play for us, Adam DiMichele. He threw for 100 touchdowns and only five or six interceptions,” Shawn Liotta said. “Jeff is one of the greatest quarterbacks to come out of Western Pennsylvania recently, and we're excited to have him.”

Sinclair continued to stay in shape, working out with the Highlands team, even throwing passes in practices. All the while, he's making ends meet by working as a press operator at JV Manufacturing in Natrona Heights.

That often is a night job.His day job suddenly will be indoor football. Sinclair said the team practices twice a week and that he'll commute to Erie.

The team's two-week training camp is in March.

Sinclair always has played with passion and energy, a frozen grin on his face after every play. He smiles when he thinks about playing again.

“(Indoor football) is fast-paced and on a small field,” he said. “A lot of times I hope to be able to make plays on my feet.

“But I feel like my arm strength is good enough to throw on the run.”

Playing time, Sinclair knows, will have to be earned.

“I hope to make the team first,” he said.

Especially if starter Aaron Smetanka, a former St. Vincent standout, returns.

Sinclair was known for late-game heroics at Robert Morris, where he led the Colonials on seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.

His 6,689 yards of total offense and 74 touchdowns rank second in RMU history. He finished third in school history in career touchdown passes (57) and fourth in passing yards (5,831).

He led Highlands to the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals in 2008, throwing for 1,262 yards and rushing for 1,222. He scored 54 career touchdowns.

Local fans might be able to follow Sinclair's progress via television — assuming he has an immediate role on the team. The Explosion is the subject of a reality show called “Reload * Explode,” which will air Sundays during the season beginning Jan. 4 on The CW.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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