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. The butterflies flying around in my stomach slowly get bigger. 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. The butterflies are as big as they can get. 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 after the semifinal game. After beating the third top-ten team in the 8A bracket, and the second undefeated team, we had some confidence for the next week. You could feel the excitement running through that packed field house. This feeling was new to us. We didn’t know what was going to 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,” Coach said. “Every time we’ve had a team go to State, there is always at least one player who can’t play because of his 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 going be mostly the same.
The year was 2010; my brother and his team were looking to clinch their third consecutive State title. His week began like every other week during the playoffs. Sunday film session to review the game as a team. After that, the offense and the defense split up to watch film for the team they would face the following week. Monday through Wednesday were normal practices with all the hype leading up to Thursday. At the beginning of Thursday’s practice, all of the alumni football players were invited back take a picture together. The alumni shook hands with the current players, watched them practice, and gave them confidence. The whole event was filled with emotions. Mid-day Thursday – the team had their weekly pasta party; parents and siblings were 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 filled with earbuds or headphones, a charger for our phones, and many other necessary things from home. We sat with our closest friends and prepared to watch the on-board movie during our drive.
It was the day of their third consecutive state game. My brother and his team, led by their coach, head to Illinois State University’s football field. My brother always told me that his coach brought them there to get mentally and emotionally prepared for the game. He said that they went to that field because of its significance: it is the location 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, met before they left for ISU. They each made sure that the guy next to him was ready for 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 the field house, did a pregame stretch, and eventually went into the locker room. We sat around to watch the end of the Michigan versus Ohio State game as we got our gear on. Then we grabbed our bus bags and our game bags and got on the bus to head to U of I.
Many of us tried to get a pregame nap in during the bus ride. When I woke up, our bus was 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. Our fans couldn’t actually see us, but they cheered as our buses turned into the stadium.
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 reflected on all of their preparations. They realized that hard work had gotten 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 longtime rival school.
When we played them earlier in the season, we lost 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 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 together. After respecting the other team and shaking hands, we ran over to our student section and fan area to start the celebrating. 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.
On the podium were the superintendent, the athletic director, the principal, the head coach, and the four captains. My brother, Sean, and three of his teammates were up there. The players were given medals and then were presented with the championship trophy. They turned and showed the fans, 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. When I found him, I jogged over.
“We did it,” I said. I gave him a big hug.
“Way to go. I’m so proud of you,” he said.
The next few months were filled with celebrations and ceremonies. In March, we were presented with our championship rings. When I got home with mine, I immediately went up to my brother’s room to compare. My ring was bigger than all of his three. I turned around and saw him in his doorway.
“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’d better get right back into that weight room,” he said. I knew that even though he was being serious, he was proud of what we had accomplished and was still celebrating with me.
My brother and I are both State Champions and are ready for anything that comes our way.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.