I'm often asked: How do you pick the All-Chicago Area football team?
It isn't easy. After more than 40 years of being involved in the Sun-Times selections, I hope we're getting close to getting it right.
It wasn't easy in 1968 and it isn't any easier today, when only a few writers who cover the games make the selections in concert with recommendations from coaches. In the 1970s and 1980s, a panel of coaches representing every conference in the city and suburbs met to choose the team.
In fact, it is even more difficult today because only 25 players are selected--11 on offense, 11 on defense, a punter, kicker and kick returner. Previously, 44 players were chosen--8 receivers, 4 quarterbacks, 20 interior linemen or linebackers and 12 backs.
In the Year of the Quarterback in the Chicago area, the Sun-Times chose Hinsdale Central's John Whitelaw. But it would have been difficult enough to choose four from Whitelaw, Downers Grove South's Chandler Whitmer, Lake Forest's Tommy Rees, Prospect's Miles Osei, Rolling Meadows' Jimmy Garropolo, Marist's Mike Perish, Maine South's Tyler Benz, Montini's Brandon Pechloff, Glenbard West's Tyler Warden and Morgan Park's DaRon Brown.
Every year, there are locks, no-brainers, players who are virtual unanimous picks. This year, they were Maine South's Matt Perez, Fremd's Christian Lombard, Proviso West's Kyle Prater, Johnsburg's C.J. Fiedorowicz, Loyola's Pat Dougherty, Naperville North's Nick Lifka and St. Rita's Bruce Gaston Jr.
Then it gets tricky. Every year, some positions are stronger than others. Picking one quarterback and two running backs always is a tough decision. Sometimes the selectors are pressed to come up with five outstanding offensive linemen or four gifted defensive backs. Sometimes the list of candidates is overflowing with talent.
And there are surprises. At the beginning of the season, who would have dreamed that Dougherty, a 5-11, 190-pounder who was a backup last year, would emerge as the defensive player of the year in the Catholic League Blue, arguably the most competitive conference in the state?
Or how about Jahwon Akui, St. Rita's junior running back? He was a lock as Perez' running mate after seven games with more than 1,400 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing. Then he was injured. He missed five games. Should he be considered? Did he miss too many games? There was sentiment on both sides.
In the end, Akui was awarded a spot on the 25-man team because it was determined that he had played enough and his numbers couldn't be overlooked. Coaches who played against him were questioned about his standing and they agreed: He belonged on the team.
For more than 40 years, the Sun-Times has sought to select the best high school players based on performance, not college scholarship offers or ratings by recruiting services. I still remember the 5-6, 180-pound noseguard who was selected many years ago. The coaches singled him out as the best defensive player in the conference, knowing full well that he wasn't going to play in college. But he was deserving.
There are flaws in the system, of course. I think we tend to give more consideration to players on teams that advance farther in the state playoff. Sometimes players from 0-9 or 1-8 or 2-7 teams are forgotten altogether.
That didn't happen this year with the selections of Proviso East's Corey Cooper and Homewood-Flossmoor's Zach Fulton. But would they have been chosen if they weren't committed to Division I programs (Cooper to Illinois, Fulton to Tennessee)? And Cooper, a two-time choice, had a body of work.
We also bend over backwards to make sure that the best teams are represented--if they have a worthy candidate. The best teams usually have the best players, right? Every team in the state finals isn't represented but we certainly gave them due consideration.
And it can be said that every candidate on the board was observed at least once by the writers who made the selections. With more than 200 schools in the Chicago area, that isn't always an easy assignment. There are always late bloomers.
Did anyone predict how good Lake Zurich's Jacob Brinlee would be this season? Or Glenbard West's Jordan Walsh? Or Cary-Grove's Hayden Baker? Or Glenbard North's Nick Abbate? Or Providence's Peter Houlihan? Or De La Salle's D.J. Bland?
Sure, there are critics who will argue that we didn't get them all right, that we missed somebody who was deserving. And they may be right. But we made the call. And we'll stick by it.