Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

Remember those amazing Appleknockers?
May 4, 2012, 2:36 pm
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Since I retired as a sportswriter and high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001, I have written four books, two of them on high school basketball in Illinois.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn't write at least three others--on Hebron's 1952 team, the smallest school ever to win a state championship, Thornridge's 1972 team, the best in state history, and the 1964 Cobden Appleknockers, perhaps the best Cinderella story of all.

Fortunately, someone else was enterprising enough to do it. Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, and his wife Julie Kistler co-authored "Once There Were Giants." Scott Lynn, a former basketball player at Lincoln, authored and self-published "Thornridge." And Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman co-authored "The Amazing Appleknockers" for Lusk Creek Publishing.

In my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, I wrote chapters on all three subjects.

During one of my research trips to southern Illinois, I visited Cobden High School and interviewed Cobden star Chuck Neal at his home in nearby Anna. I also interviewed several other players by telephone and visited coach Dick Ruggles at his home in Nashville.

It was a magical story. Aside from Hebron in 1952, the state tournament hasn't seen anything like it. Cobden was the school of 147 students that could and almost did. The Appleknockers lost to Pekin 50-45 in the state championship game, but they captured the hearts of everyone outside of Pekin.

Campbell and Ryman never saw the 1964 Cobden team play--they are 1986 graduates of the school. But they heard all the of stories and decided they should put them into print. They spent four years researching the subject and two years trying to find someone to publish their manuscript.

"Being from Cobden, you always hear the story of the amazing Appleknockers. We wanted to preserve it. It if wasn't written down, we thought it wouldn't be remembered accurately or perhaps not at all," said Campbell, now a basic skills specialist and assistant coordinator for public and sport information at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

"That's Cobden's claim to fame. The 1964 team's picture is in the gym. They are our local heroes. I didn't know the details of the story. I just knew they went to state and lost to Pekin. A lot of people think they won. When I was a student, marching in a high school parade in West Frankfort and in the State Fair parade in Springfield, people said we won state in 1964. We wouldn't correct them."

But Campbell and Ryman, very close friends who have known each other since third grade, decided to set the record straight. Their first interview was star player Kenny Flick, who still lives in Cobden. Flick's decision to quit the team during his junior season because his girlfriend got pregnant, and his return to the team as a senior is only one of the most interesting stories in the book.

"He had a reputation of not being real talkative but he talked to us for three hours," Campbell said. "He told us a lot of stories that weren't basketball-related. We knew it would be a book. We were committed. It wasn't all that hard to get interviews. Bob Smith (who died in 2008) is the only one who isn't alive. But we had interviewed him. Our only regret is he didn't see the finished product."

Ryman, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a reporter for the Arizona Republic, said she was impressed with how the coaches and players were able to recollect things. Ruggles, for example, had total recall of his two-year hiatus in Cobden, a word-for-word account, a virtual play-by-play.

"We were fascinated by the level of detail," Ryman said. "We never went away from an interview without learning something. It was so rewarding to talk to them about what they went through. They weren't out for personal glory. There was no star. It was just a case of who was hot that night. There were so many good stories, like a soap opera."

Theirs is a fascinating tale. It's all there...how 27-year-old Dick Ruggles was recruited from Hurst-Bush High School to become the coach at Cobden, the tragic death of starting guard Tom Crowell, star player Kenny Flick's decision to quit the team after his girlfriend got pregnant, the school board's decision to change a rule prohibiting married students from competing in sports, thus allowing Flick to return to school and play on the team as a senior, the one-point victory over Egyptian in the regional, the triple overtime victory over Pinckneyville in the supersectional, almost play-by-play accounts of the important games, mascot Roger Burnett placing five apples on the floor of Assembly Hall while 16,000 fans cheered, the fanatical support by students, parents and fans.

Perhaps most intriguing is Ruggles total recall of the events, from his decision to take the job before the 1962-63 season to leaving Cobden after the 1963-64 season to become coach at Nashville. The book is laced with his recollections of plays and games, pregame speeches, halftime speeches, postgame speeches, quote by quote. It is as if it all happened last week, not nearly 50 years ago.

When I interviewed Chuck Neal at his home in Anna in 2002, nearly 40 years after teammate Tom Crowell had drowned in a swimming accident a few months before the 1963-64 season, he still had to wipe away tears when recalling the tragedy.

"What always has stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it may not have happened," he said. Neal, Ken Smith and Crowell planned to go swimming on a warm day in May. Chuck knew his father, a member of the school board who largely had been responsible for hiring Ruggles, didn't want him to go to Little Grassy Lake because it was known to have a big dropoff. So Chuck told him they would go to Lamer's Pond. Instead, they went to Little Grassy.

Crowell wasn't a very good swimmer. Smith and Neal decided to swim across the cove but told Crowell to stay behind in a shallow area. When they got halfway across, they turned around to see Crowell struggling in deep water. He apparently had tried to follow them. Neal went ahead to get help and Smith swam back and desperately tried to save Crowell's life.

"It was the most horrible experience I even had, even worse than Vietnam," Smith said. "He kept fighting me and he kept going under and he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I think about what Tom could have been."

The class of 1964 still gets together every five years and the graduates who still live in the Cobden area get together every month. The basketball team celebrated a 40th anniversary by serving as grand marshals of the Peach Festival parade. A 50th reunion is planned in 2014.

A story like this had to be told. So it's a good thing that Campbell and Ryman, after looking for a publisher for two years, finally ran into the owner of Lusk Creek Publishing of Makanda, Illinois, at a winery in southern Illinois.

"We had a lot of rejections," Campbell said. "University of Illinois Press and Southern Illinois Press turned it down. Some publishers wouldn't even accept a proposal. SIU thought it was too small of an audience."

It's a story that anyone would love to read.