Cleats tied, belts tightened, helmets strapped up. In a single file line, we each took our first steps onto the field. This is the big stage at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the big game worth all the bragging rights. Butterflies slowly get bigger right before their departure. The coin toss. We get the ball first. Me and the rest of the guys on the kick return team meet with the special teams coach. Butterflies as big as they can get are flying around my stomach. We line up, ready for a fight.
“Way to work, you boys played well out there tonight.” These were the first words spoken to us by our coach, Coach Inserra, after the semifinal game. After beating the third top ten team in the 8A bracket, and the second undefeated team, we all had some confidence for the next week. We all felt the excitement running through that packed field house. We were all new to this feeling. We didn’t know what was gonna happen next.
“Boys, for the next week you have to be on your best behavior, one little mistake could keep you from playing at state” our head coach said. “Every time we’ve had a team go to state, there is always at least one player that can’t play because of their own actions.” He reminded us what this team, this sport, and this school is about. He explained the process that had been set up in the past and that it was gonna be mostly the same.
The year is 2010, my brother and his team are looking to clinch their third consecutive state title. His week began like every other week during the playoffs. Sunday film session together to review the game as a team. After that, the offense and the defense split up to watch film for the team they will face the following week. Monday through Wednesday are normal practices with all the hype leading up to Thursday. At the beginning of Thursday’s practice, all of the alumni football players who were invited back take a picture together. The alumni shook each of the current player’s hands and watched them practice. The whole event is filled with emotions as they send the players off with confidence from the alumni. Mid-day Thursday, the team has their weekly pasta party; parents and siblings there to celebrate the team and all their achievements.
“Good luck boys” the parents shouted as we loaded the bus with all our gear. The team moms supplied us with granola bars and gatorades as we stepped up onto the bus. We had cozy blankets waiting for us in each of our seats. Each of us had our own bag for the long bus ride. Earbuds or headphones, charger for our phones, many things more from home, and other duds from our drawer of unknowns. We each sat with our closest friends and prepared to watch the on-board movie during our drive. A drive all the way to the old school of our new athletic director. With his connections at the school still being intact, he got us a place to watch a little extra film and all the other events our head coach had in store for us that night.
It was the day of their third consecutive state game. My brother and his team, led by their coach, head to Illinois State University and their football field. My brother always told me that the reason his coach brought them there was to get mentally into the game and to emotionally prepare. He said that they were brought there because of its significance. He said the the coach always liked going there because it is the designation of the first state championship won by the school’s team. My brother’s “band of brothers,” the guys that he had been with for all three teams, all met before they left for ISU. They made sure that the guy next him was ready for a battle.
My team was taken to Illinois Wesleyan University. We hung out for a couple of hours and just relaxed. During the whole season we never were too intense about our pregame rituals, however, we were consistent with being really laid back. At IWU we played basketball in their field house; we did a pregame stretch, and eventually we went into their locker room. We all sat around to watch the end of the Michigan vs Ohio State game as we got our gear on. After that, we grabbed our bus bags and our game bags, before we got on the bus to head to U of I. A lot of us decided to get a pregame nap in during our bus ride. When I woke up, we were being led into town by eight police cars and eight police motorcycles. As the buses entered the streets surrounding Memorial Stadium, we were greeted by our friends and family. Cheering for us as we turned into the stadium, our fans couldn’t actually see us, but the presence of the buses got them all excited.
As his team entered the U of I locker room, only 11 of my brother’s teammates, including himself, were there for their third time, but all of them were hoping to come out of that game with a win and a trophy to go with it. As they got ready and met with their coaches, the team had become aware of all the preparation that they had done. They realized that the hard work they had done got them to where they were that day.
“The time is now, show the country who we are. It’s time to start the battle. Line up” his coach yelled to the team.
Cleats tied, belts tightened, helmets strapped up. In a single file line, we each took our first steps onto the field. The big stage at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the big game worth all the bragging rights. The last game of the year for the entire state. The biggest game against a long time school rival.
When we played them earlier in the season, we lost to them by one point. This time, we felt it would be different.
We were down at halftime. We were losing 14 to 10. For some reason though, we all could sense the same thing. We all knew that if we just pushed ourselves a little bit harder, we could finish on top. We knew that after the second half of the game, there would be nothing else to prove.
Loyola was the fourth team ranked in the top ten. Loyola was undefeated for 27 straight games. They were the reigning champions. We were ranked 26th coming into the playoffs with a record of 6-3. Our coach, Dave Inserra, was at his eighth state title game, looking to come out with his fifth win. In his 16th year as head coach, he was going for his fourth title as a head coach.
The thriller against Loyola for my brother’s team came in the semifinal game. The game came down to the last couple of plays with the Hawks beating the Ramblers 29 to 22. The Hawks persevered at the state game as well and won their third title in a row with a score of 28 to 7.
My team shut down the Ramblers and finished the game 27 to 17. When the clock ran down, we all stormed the field and celebrated at center field together. After respecting the other team and doing the handshake, we all ran over to our student section and our fan area to start the celebrating with them. We sang the fight song, just like we did the whole season after every game.
“HAIL TO THE RED AND WHITE”, the sound filled the stadium. “PROUDLY WE PROCLAIM THAT WE ARE CHEERING FOR OUR TEAM, ONTO GREATER FAME” we all yelled. The cheers continued as we walked to the podium.
The people on the podium consisted of the superintendent, the athletic director, the principal, the head coach, and the four captains. My brother, Sean, and three other of his three-peat teammates were up there with him. The captains were; Frank Colletti, Connor Klien, Victor Nelson, and Sean Sullivan. The players were presented with their medals, and then were presented with the championship trophy. They turned and showed their fan base, and then turned to face the rest of the team. The trophy was the hardware that they were looking for.
As our trophy was passed down to the team, I got close enough to touch it. After that I made my way out of the mob of players, coaches and cheerleaders. I searched for my brother. Once I found him, I jogged my way over to him.
“We did it,” I said. I gave him a big hug.
“Way to go, I’m so proud of you,” he said.
Then next few months were filled with celebrations and ceremonies. The celebration finished up in March of 2017, when we were presented with our championship rings. When I got home with mine, I immediately went up to my brother’s room to compare sizes. My ring was bigger than all of his three. I turned around and saw him in his door way.
“Working hard pays off in the long run doesn’t it. Your road to a repeat starts with how seriously you take your off-season. When you are done with your next sport, you better get right into that weight room,” he said. I knew that even though he was being serious, he was proud of what we accomplished and was still celebrating with me.
We are both State Champions, and are ready for anything that comes our way.