Geneseo is the high school football capital of Illinois.
If you have any doubts, plan a trip to the Henry County community about 165 miles west of Chicago on I-80 to attend a football game. It's a small town that Norman Rockwell painted a hundred times and one that Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Ronnie Howard must have lived in.
Geneseo has a population of 6,480 and more than 2,000 show up for every football game, wearing their green shirts. Where else are rockets shot into the nighttime sky during the "rockets red glare" singing of the Star Spangled Banner? And you wouldn't believe the pork sandwiches off the grill.
But that's only the beginning.
The football field, named for legendary coach Bob Reade, is held with the same esteem as Yankee Stadium. The grassy playing surface is roomed with all the care of the 18th green at Augusta National.
The game program, all 42 pages of it, is filled with advertisements from local businesss and alumni and fans who support the school and the football team. A full page is devoted to the members of Geneseo's football booster club. Old-time heroes, such as Wayne Strader, regularly return to cheer the current players.
My wife Gail and I were invited to Geneseo on a recent Friday to sign copies of my latest book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press.
There are three stories devoted to Geneseo in the book--coach Bob Reade, the second-winningest coach in state history; the 1976 team, one of the best in state history; and the Geneseo program, one of the most successful of all mid-sized schools in Illinois.
The response was overwhelming. Upon learning that we were going to be in Geneseo for a book signing, the Geneseo Republic and the Moline Dispatch called to request interviews.
Upon arrival, athletic director Travis Mackey had a stack of books for me to sign for people who couldn't attend the event. When the gates opened at 4:30 p.m., dozens of people were standing in line. The first was Elmer Reedy, who has coached at Geneseo for 61 years.
One of Bob Reade's daughters, one of 11 children, bought nine books. I had already signed two others for her parents and another member of the family who couldn't attend. Bob couldn't attend because he was watching one of his son's football teams play in Seneca. We sold seven boxes of books in less than three hours.
Mackey, his wife Chris, superintendent Scott Kuffel, who recalled a story I had written about him for the old Chicago Daily News in the 1970s, principal Mike Haugse and assistant principal Joseph DePauw couldn't have been more hospitable.
Talk about tradition and excitement and enthusiasm. The football program experienced some moderate success in the 1950s but Reade put Geneseo on the map in the 1960s. He once won 52 games in a row, produced three state championship teams in the 1970s and left a legacy that has been challenging for every coach who has tried to fill his giant footsteps.
The coaches, the players, the alumni and the townspeople remember the way it was, they're proud of the tradition and they're eager to maintain it. When we left Geneseo, we drove through the business section. There wasn't a car or a person on the street. The whole town could have been stolen and nobody would have noticed. We knew where everybody was.