Bloom's 1957 football team could have been the best ever produced in Illinois, better than St. Rita 1971 or Evanston 1971 or Joliet Catholic 1975 or East St. Louis 1985 or Wheaton Warrenville South 1998 or Mount Carmel 1950 or Fenwick 1962 or Loyola 1969 or Thornton 1965 or Rockford East 1974.
Trouble is the Chicago Heights school hasn't had a winner since.
In the 1950s, Bloom was the gold standard of high school sports in Illinois. The Trojans were dominant in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and track and field. Bloom's track team won four state championships in a row.
Cecil Sarff's 1957 football team, led by future NFL player Leroy Jackson, Chuck Green, Homer Thurman and Roger Elliott, was unbeaten and unchallenged in nine games in the old South Suburban League.
Since then, Bloom football has been non-competitive. This is a program that went 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 from 1995 to 2001.
Coach Tony Palombi, in his eighth year, was 18-45 for the past seven, a .286 winning percentage. Last year's team was 2-7. But this year's team is 6-3, the most wins in a season since 1990.
The Trojans lost to Glenbard South 31-27 in Game 2, to unbeaten Crete-Monee 41-6 in Game 6 and to Rich East 20-14 in Game 7. It appeared the long drought might continue but Bloom defeated Rich Central 21-0 last Saturday to clinch the school's fourth trip to the state playoff and first since 1989. They'll play perennial Public League power Simeon on Friday night at Gately Stadium in a Class 8A opener.
Against Rich Central, middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt sparked the defense with two sacks and an interception. Justus Brantley rushed 23 times for 112 yards and one touchdown and also caught a 60-yard scoring pass from Kendall McGinnis. Linebacker Dominique Taylor recovered a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown.
"We made history," Hurt said. "We came out here and fought with our hearts."
"We played like it was a playoff game, our last game. If we lost, we felt we would hand in our equipment that night," said senior wide receiverdefensive back Charles DeLoach III. "You can talk the talk but not walk the walk. We let our play do the talking for us."
"This is the first time we've had a group of kids who had a team atmosphere," Palombi said. "They are easy to coach. They do anything you ask. This is awesome, what you wait for as a coach, a belief in one another."
After going 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 in the last three years, Palombi said he "needed something for these kids to hang their hats on, something for them to work with." A friend, former Thornwood coach Andre Collins suggested a psychological gimmick he called "faith, fight, finish, family."
"It made the kids believe in something bigger than us, a faith in people around you to do better, that you would have the strength to do what is needed to be successful, to fight through all the adversity that life throws at you," Palombi said.
Despite the negative numbers, he saw some positive signs. He returned 12 starters from last year's 2-7 squad, including 10 on offense. As sophomores, the seniors were 6-3. And the juniors were 6-3 as sophomores. The two classes had a taste of winning.
"The kids were buying into our calling card," Palombi said. "It's not about football but about life. You have to see it to believe it. We're still running the same spread option and three stack defense. We still use the same speed and lifting and conditioning programs.
"I tell the kids to go to the Internet and see what other players are doing. What are your goals? What are your dreams? Look at Thornton and Lincoln-Way East, the perennial powers. They commit. They want to be something."
Palombi said he sat down with his players and talked to each of them.
"What do you want to be and what do you want to do to get there?" he asked them.
"They know what Bloom used to be. The banners from Bloom and Bloom Trail are hanging there. Another factor is how well the basketball team did last year (28-5, fourth place in Class 4A). They have to understand what drove those kids to succeed. For me, the biggest thing is being a part of it."
Bloom overcame adversity from the outset. The quarterback, a two-year starter, transferred to Lincoln-Way West three days before the start of double sessions in August. "We had no idea he was leaving," Palombi said.
Kendall McGinnis, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior, stepped in and the Trojans didn't miss a beat. He has passed for more than 700 yards and rushed for 500.
"He was our No. 2 quarterback all summer," Palombi said. "But the team came around him. He directs everything. He sits in the shotgun and has the ball in his hands all the time. He makes great decisions. I'm surprised he took charge so quickly. He even worked out as a tight end in the summer. He has so much maturity. We knew he was capable. He has the tools."
Brantley, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 270 yards against Fenton and 387 yards and five touchdowns against Rich South.
"He was on the sophomore team last year. We knew he was a good runner but we didn't know he had the capability to rush for almost 400 yards in a single game," Palombi said. "We knew he was a good athlete. He has speed and vision and ability to make a cut."
Brantley has come on like gangbusters. He didn't establish himself as the No. 1 running back until Week 3. Up to then, he was sharing the spot with a returning starter. When Palombi had to move the senior to linebacker because of an injury, Brantley stepped up.
Other contributors are 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior defensive back Josiah Dailey, 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt, 6-foot, 228-pound senior center Brandon Rockett, 6-foot, 260-pound senior guard Collis McCloud, 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior guard Alan Hall, 6-foot, 220-pound senior tackleend Jalen Thomas, 5-foot-10, 230-pound tackle Antwan Bluster and 5-foot-9, 230-pound linebacker Mr. Clark.
"Going to practice is a joy," Palombi said. "It is extra special when you make adjustments and they know what you are talking about."
DeLoach, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound senior, is aware of Bloom's history. A sprinter, long jumper and pole vaulter on the track and field team, he is aware of the school's four state championships in the 1950s. And he sees the banner for the 1957 football team hanging in McCann Gym and the team picture displayed outside the gym. "It was the greatest team in Bloom history," he said.
Most of all, he recalls where the program has been and why it has gone from 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 to 6-3 in the last four years.
"When I was a freshman, they were 1-8 and some kids said they didn't want to play for Bloom. Even students said: 'Why don't you play somewhere else where you can be a winner?' It didn't matter to me. If you keep working hard and work in the off-season, you will do something great," DeLoach said.
"We ignored all the negative talk. We bought into what the coach said. Our motto is: faith, fight, finish, family. We looked at other schools and saw how they came together. In the past, our teams weren't together. But we are together this year."
There were times last summer, however, when DeLoach and his teammates wondered if it was all worthwhile. Palombi put them through countless hours of running, running and more running, long distance runs and sprints.
"It was one of the hottest summers I can think of," DeLoach said. "We were out there every day...800 meters, five times, over 100 degrees. We pushed ourselves to keep going. We had to keep going and not give up. It was very painful at the time, very tiring. It was hard work but it was worth it."