I've often been asked about my favorite memories of covering high school football and basketball...the best players, the best coaches, the best teams, the best games. After 50 years, it is hard to remember them all.
See how many of these you remember:
1. My very first memory of a high school event: Watching the first live telecast of the Illinois high school basketball tournament in 1952. I was 12 at the time and I still vividly recall how announcer Jack Drees painted a picture of the dramatic HebronQuincy overtime championship game.
2. In 1957, as a senior at Blue Island (now Eisenhower) Community High School, I was awed as unbeaten Bloom Township and Leroy Jackson crushed Blue Island 28-0. Of all the great high school teams I have seen, Bloom still ranks No. 1 on my all-time list.
3. As a freshman at the University of Illinois and a sportswriter for the Daily Illini newspaper, I witnessed the finals of the state high school basketball tournament in person for the first time in 1959 in old Huff Gym. Springfield's Tom Cole and West Aurora's Bill Small provided most of the entertainment.
4. In 1960, I got my first look at what Chicago Public League basketball was all about. Marshall and George Wilson and Eddie Jakes were overpowering in winning their second state title in three years. With a break or two, Marshall could have won four state titles in a row from 1958 to 1961.
5. Speaking of overpowering, I got my first look at Collinsville and legendary coach Vergil Fletcher in 1961. The Kahoks, led by Bogie Redmon and Fred Riddle, completed a 32-0 season by crushing Thornton 84-50 for the state championship.
6. You'll always remember the first time you saw Cazzie Russell on the basketball floor. In 1962, there was nobody like him...a 6-foot-5 hunk of a man among boys. How stunned we all were in the closing seconds as Bruce Raickett inexplicably threw the ball to Jim Hill, Ken Barnes made two free throws and Decatur rallied to beat Carver 49-48 for the state title.
7. In one week in 1963, as a first-year sportswriter for the Champaign-Urbana Courier, I covered the first college basketball game and the first state high school tournament game every played in the new Assembly Hall. And the finish topped the 1962 drama as Carver sophomore Anthony Smedley came off the bench in the closing seconds to steal the ball and convert a jump shot from the corner for a 53-52 victory over Centralia.
8. Champaign's Billy Huston and Urbana's Charlie Bareither made high school football in central Illinois very exciting in 1963, 1964 and 1965. At the same time, I got a look at Bloomington's Ron Bess. And I had occasion to talk X's and O's with two outstanding coaches, Champaign's Tommy Stewart and Urbana's Warren Smith. The ChampaignUrbana rivalry was comparable to EvanstonNew Trier and Mount CarmelSt. Rita and ThorntonBloom.
9. As a Blue Island native, I had experienced the aura of Thornton footballbasketball as a high school student. In 1966, while covering high school sports for the Champaign-Urbana Courier, I got a close look at Thornton's state championship basketball team and star athlete LaMarr Thomas. I traveled to Harvey to interview him during the season during a time when Illinois football coach Pete Elliott was recruiting him. He chose Michigan State.
10. Living in Collinsville and working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in from September 1966 to September 1968 was a rewarding experience. I spent many afternoons talking basketball with legendary coach Vergil Fletcher. And I saw Tom Parker score a then single-game record of 50 points as Collinsville defeated Alton in the championship game of the Carbondale Holiday Tournament in 1967.
11. While working in St. Louis, I covered Jerry Reuss as he pitched his high school team to the Missouri state baseball championship. Reuss was a second-round pick in the 1967 major league draft and enjoyed a 22-year career in the bigs.
12. When I was hired by the Chicago Daily News in 1968, I made it a point to meet with three veteran coaches to get a feel for high school sports in the Chicago area. They were Evanston's Murney Lazier, Carver's Larry Hawkins and Hinsdale Central's Harvey Dickinson.
13. My first recollection of high school football in the Chicago area:
Having dinner at my new home on College Avenue in Wheaton and seeing Glenbard West students marching from Glen Ellyn to attend the annual opening game with Wheaton Central at the old school on Main Street.
14. My first high school game in Chicago: a Catholic League match-up between Loyola and Mount Carmel in Wilmette. Sunday, Sept. 8, 1968. Loyola won 30-23 as John Dore and Bill Hogan intercepted passes to set up two touchdowns and Mike O'Rourke intercepted another on his 20 with 15 seconds to play to preserve the victory.
15. Spaghetti dinners at the home of coach Ron Nikcevich and his wife Pat as Lyons Township, led by Owen Brown and Marcus Washington, celebrated one victory after another en route to a 31-0 season and the 1970 state championship.
16. Thornridge. 1972. Quinn Buckner. Boyd Batts. Mike Bonczyk. Greg Rose. Ernie Dunn. Nee Gatlin. Coach Ron Ferguson. The best high school basketball team ever to play in Illinois. 33-0. No opponent came within 14 points. State final: Thornridge 104, Quincy 69. Case closed.
17. Watching coach Harold Samorian and underdog Glenbrook North upset heavily favored East St. Louis with three future NFL players, including Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, 19-13 in overtime in 1974 in the first and perhaps most exciting championship game in the history of the state football playoff.
18. Phillips 77, Westinghouse 65, Public League championship, 1977. A crowd of 12,000 filled the International Amphitheatre to see Phillips' Darius Clemons outplay Westinghouse's Mark Aguirre, Eddie Johnson and Skip Dillard in a duel of unbeaten teams that were ranked 1-2 in the state. A few days later, Phillips lost to St. Laurence in the state quarterfinals.
19. Maine South, a Cinderella if there ever was one, beat New Trier West by two, upset favored De La Salle 37-27, edged East Moline 77-76 in overtime and stunned previously unbeaten and top-ranked Quincy 83-67 to win the state championship in 1979. Jeff Baker, who later played at TCU, had 26 points and 10 points in the final.
20. Quincy's 1981 basketball team, led by Bruce Douglas and Michael Payne, was almost as dominant but not as good as Thornridge's 1972 team. The Blue Devils went 33-0 and crushed Proviso East 68-39 in the state final. After he retired, coach Jerry Leggett admitted that his team wasn't as good as Thornridge.
21. Simeon coach Bob Hambric showed everyone in Illinois who was paying attention that a Chicago Public League team could win the state title with a deliberate, controlled, disciplined offense. Led by Ben Wilson and Tim Bankston, the Wolverines snapped top-ranked Evanston's 32-game winning streak 53-47. Simeon finished with a 30-1 record.
22. Much to the Illinois High School Association's chagrin, a pair of Chicago Catholic schools swept the Class A and AA titles. Providence-St. Mel, behind Lowell Hamilton, Fernando Bunch and Joe Jackson, crushed Chrisman 95-63. And Mount Carmel, led by Melvin McCants and James Farr, edged Springfield Lanphier 46-44 on sophomore Derrick Boyd's rebound basket at the buzzer in double overtime.
23. In 1989, in one of the most exciting state finals in tournament history, East St. Louis Lincoln spoiled Peoria Central's 32-game winning streak 59-57 on Vincent Jackson's last-second basket in triple overtime. It was coach Bennie Lewis' fourth state title in the 1980s.
24. In 1992, Phil Adler rushed 24 times for 186 yards and three touchdowns, including one in each overtime, as Wheaton Warrenville South completed a 14-0 season by outlasting Joliet Catholic 40-34 in double overtime. The Tigers drove 80 yards in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter to tie at 27 on Doug MacLeod's 27-yard field goal. MacLeod converted his first attempt but a penalty forced him to do it again.
25. In 1995, 5-foot-11, 135-pound Brian Schmitz kicked a 37-yard field goal with eight seconds to play to lift Maine South to a 31-28 victory over Mount Carmel for the Class 5A championship. It was even more dramatic because a snap earlier Schmitz attempted a 58-yarder that was long enough but wide right. However, a roughing-the-kicker penalty gave Schmitz another chance from closer range. He didn't miss. Earlier, he also caught two touchdown passes from John Schacke.
26. Speaking of one school winning four state titles in the 1980s, Peoria Manual won an unprecedented four in a row in the 1990s--1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997--with Brandon Hughes, Willie Coleman, Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frankie Williams begin the headliners. Dick Van Scyoc coached the first team, Wayne McClain the last three.
27. Montini 70, Joliet Catholic 45, Class 5A championship, 2011. If you saw it, how could you forget it? The numbers were extraordinary. Montini's John Rhode passed for 587 yards and seven touchdowns and Jordan Westerkamp caught 11 passes for 331 yards and five touchdowns. Joliet Catholic's Ty Isaac rushed for 515 yards and six touchdowns, including breakaways of 71, 63, 56 and 66 yards in the first half. It is exhausting just to type it all.
28. Finally, the two most memorable postgame speeches:
After beating Fenwick in a Catholic League football game at Oak Park Stadium, the Mendel players were celebrating in the locker room when coach Lou Guida arrived on the scene and motioned for the team chaplain: "OK, father, let's have the (bleeping) prayer."
After losing to Vocational in the Prep Bowl in 1076, becoming the first Catholic League representative to lose to a Public League opponent since 1959, St. Rita coach Pat Cronin said: "I guess God wanted me to be an (bleep)."
Happy New Year.