(Note: My fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, is currently available online through University of Illinois Press, Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon and at your local bookstore. To my knowledge, it is the first book ever written on the subject. So I wanted to cover everything. I wrote 150,000 words. The published wanted closer to 100,000. So, regrettably, I had to delete several stories from the final manuscript. Beginning today and continuing in the next several weeks, I will print those stories. I hope you enjoy them--and the book, too.)
High school football has changed a lot since Red Grange played at Wheaton in the post-World War I era. And the game has changed a lot since Scott Dierking played at West Chicago in the early 1970s.
West Chicago, a railroad community known as Turner's Junction at the turn of the 20th century, is located west of Wheaton. It is home to one of the few remaining outdoor motion picture drive-in theaters in the country. When Dierking was growing up, his father owned the only sporting good store on Main Street and his uncle owned one of the few taverns in town. For entertainment, kids went to the Cascade Drive-In or the Dog 'n Suds.
But the entire personality of West Chicago picked up when the high school football team was winning. And it won when Dierking was there.
As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,750 yards and 31 touchdowns as coach Paul Unruh's team went 8-0 and won the first conference championship in 30 years. As a junior, he rushed for 1,500 yards for a 6-2 team. As a senior, he rushed for 1,500 yards on a 7-1 conference champion that television sportscaster Duane Dow ranked No. 4 in the Chicago area before losing to Sycamore in its final game.
"What was fun was seeing the town get excited once again. It was always such a sleepy place. But 5,000 people showed up for the games," Dierking said. "My father and others built the press box with donated materials. It was an exciting time for the town."
Dierking graduated in 1973. In 1975, West Chicago won the Class 3A state championship. The Wildcats went 13-0 behind quarterback Scott Hall, running back Henry Antes, receiver Jerry Stockton and defensive standouts Jim Gunnell, Larry Fry, Bob Diveley and Jeff Olsen. They shut out their last three opponents--Geneseo 3-0, Immaculate Conception 20-0 and Downstate Mount Carmel 32-0.
By then, Dierking was at Purdue. He thought he was going to Northwestern but when NU coach Alex Agase was hired at Purdue, Dierking followed him to West Lafayette, Indiana. After rushing for 1,000 yards in eight games as a senior, including 160 yards and two touchdowns in an upset of top-ranked Michigan, he was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets. He signed for a $22,000 bonus and played in the NFL for eight years, seven with the Jets.
Now Scott watches his son Dan, a former All-Stater at Wheaton-Warrenville South who was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year in 2006, play at Purdue. He marvels at how the game has changed. At West Chicago, he had three coaches. At Wheaton South, Dan had 14, almost one for each position. Scott had an unsupervised weight room; Dan had personal trainers. Scott began training a month before preseason practice; Dan trains year-round. Dan's playbook was much more complicated, similar to the Jets with Joe Namath.
"At 29, I felt like I could play for three or four more years," Scott said. "At 30, my good kneee buckled and I separated cartilage in my ribs. I knew it was time to retire."
Others had the same experience. Some played longer than Dierking. Most didn't. Some became NFL Hall of Famers--Fritz Pollard, Lane Tech, 1912; George Musso, Collinsville, 1928; Tony Canadeo, Steinmetz, 1936; Otto Graham, Waukegan, 1938; Alex Agase, Evanston, 1938; Buddy Young, Phillips, 1943; Dick Barwegan, Fenger, 1940; Pete Pihos, Austin, 1941; George Connor, De La Salle, 1941; Ray Nitschke, Proviso, 1953; Dick Butkus, Vocational, 1960; and Kellen Winslow, East St. Louis, 1974.
Many others had successful careers in college and the NFL, including Abe Woodson (Austin, 1952), Leroy Jackson (Bloom, 1957), Chuck Hoag (Oak Park, 1947), Rich Kreitling (Fenger, 1954), Joe Collier (Rock Island, 1949), Chuck Ulrich (Fenger, 1947), Bill Fischer (Lane Tech, 1944), Mike Pyle (New Trier, 1956), Ed O'Bradovich (Proviso, 1957) Bill Burrell (Clifton Central, 1955), Marty Wendell (St. George, 1943), Stan Wallace (Hillsboro, 1949), Johnny Lattner (Fenwick, 1949), Bump Elliott (Bloomington, 1942) and Al Brosky (Harrison, 1945).
Or Mike Tomczak, Thornton Fractional North, 1980; Otis Armstrong, Farragut, 1968; Billy Marek, St. Rita, 1971; Mike Alstott, Joliet Catholic, 1991; Jim Grabowski, Taft, 1961; James Smith, Blue Island Eisenhower, 1972; Darryl Stingley, Marshall, 1968; Flozell Adams, Proviso West, 1992; Dennis Lick, St. Rita, 1971; Jim Juriga, Wheaton North, 1981; Tom Thayer, Joliet Catholic, 1978; Brad Hopkins, Moline, 1987; Larry McCarron, Rich East, 1968; Keena Turner, Vocational, 1975; and Bryant Young, Bloom, 1989.
The list also includes Mike Kenn, Evanston, 1973; Dave Butz, Maine South, 1968; Clay Matthews, New Trier, 1973; Dana Howard, East St. Louis, 1989; Dwayne Goodrich, Richards, 1995; Todd Howard, Bolingbrook, 1997; Mike Prior, Marian Catholic, 1980; George Donnelly, De Kalb, 1960; Gary Fencik, Barrington, 1972; Bob Trumpy, Springfield, 1962; Russell Maryland, Whitney Young, 1986; Don Beebe, Kaneland, 1983; Chuck Long, Wheaton North, 1981; Kent Graham, Wheaton North, 1986; Robert Wehrli, Naperville, 1935; and Elmer Angsman, Mount Carmel, 1942.
Also Knute Rockne, Chicago Northwest Division, 1909; Jim Finks, Salem, 1943; Chris Calloway, Mount Carmel, 1985; Tony Furjanic, Mount Carmel, 1981; Emery Moorehead, Evanston, 1971; George Bork, Arlington, 1959; Carl Brettschneider, Dundee, 1956; Mike Lind, Calumet, 1956; Vic Markov, Lindblom, 1933; Dale Samuels, Lindblom, 1948; Chris Zorich, Vocational, 1987; Jerry Meyers, Lake View, 1970; Eric Kumerow, Oak Park, 1982; Chris Hinton, Phillips, 1978; Lou Rymkus, Tilden, 1938; Len Teeuws, Oak Park, 1943; and Ken Anderson, Batavia,1966.
Few experienced as much success in high school as Simeon Rice (Mount Carmel, 1992), Antwaan Randle El (Thornton, 1997) and Napoleon Harris (Thornton, 1997).
Rice played on two state championship teams at Mount Carmel, was a two-time All-American at Illinois, was the No. 3 selection in the 1996 NFL draft, played 11 years in the NFL, was a four-time All-Pro choice and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001.
"I was aware of the Mount Carmel tradition when I got there," Rice said. "It's on the walls and in the hallways. The tradition is so thick that it is in the air. You are continuing an eternal flame, like kids who go to Notre Dame. The tradition falls on the shoulders of the young athletes. It was our turn to fill the shoes of those who came before us. That's the thought process we had when we were 15."
Randle El and Harris played in a golden era at Thornton in the 1990s. Randle El starred on three basketball teams that reached the Final Four of the state tournament. He quarterbacked the 1996 football team to the state quarterfinals. And he was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the major league baseball draft. Later, as Indiana's quarterback, he was the Big Ten's most valuable player. Then, as a wide recevier, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006.
"Baseball was my favorite sport but I have no regrets. My parents said 'no' to signing out of high school. They wanted me to go to college," Randle El said. "They taught me to fight. Being at Thornton, which had top-notch teams every year, you had to fight to keep that status. Thornton hasn't been good in football and basketball for years by just showing up. You have to be a leader and work hard."
Harris was Randle El's teammate. But basketball was his sport. He didn't come out for football until he enrolled at Thornton and coach Bill Mosel recruited him out of the lunchroom. He earned a scholarship to Northwestern and was the Oakland Raiders' first-round pick in the 2001 NFL draft. He later played linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Harris wanted to go to North Carolina. Legendary coach Dean Smith said he could walk on the basketball team and also play football. But he opted for Northwestern. After playing basketball as a freshman, he quit to concentrate on football. He felt he had progressed further in football and determined he might have a future in the sport.
"The turning point was when we played Indiana and Antwaan in my junior year," Harris summed up. "I had 22 tackles in the game. Everybody took notice of me. I asked myself: 'Do you know what you just did?' I began to think I had a future in football. If I put in more effort, I said to myself, maybe this can be something for me. I would like to think I'd be in the NBA if Mosel hadn't discovered me in the lunchroom. But I was smart enough to do what I did."