It took quarterback Willie Bourbon and wide receiver Cameron Green all of six plays to connect on a 45-yard touchdown pass in Stevenson’s annual Green and Gold scrimmage last Thursday. But one of the top offensive combinations in Illinois has been building toward this moment – leading the Patriots deep into the IHSA state playoffs as upperclassmen – through impressive work ethic and a maturing leadership for years.
From the moment the pair stepped onto the field for the first time, teaming up in the backfield of Buffalo Grove’s 80-pound Silver League as 6-year-olds, their individual skill sets and combined chemistry was apparent. As they progressed through the system, the numbers continued to pile up. Bourbon recalled a play in sixth grade when Green took a handoff and followed four separate blocks from Bourbon, his fullback, and raced untouched for a score.
Two years later the duo moved to quarterback and tight end, respectively, and had instant success. Green’s most vivid recollection came in eighth grade, when his Buffalo Grove team trailed Plainfield by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
Cue the first of many memorable Bourbon-to-Green connections.
A 13-year-old Bourbon dropped back to pass and found Green on a fly pattern – similar to the one they connected on in the scrimmage – for a 60-yard touchdown to tie up the game.
“We won that game in overtime,” Green told CSNChicago.com with a smile. “So we've been best buddies and going crazy after that, since back then.”
Added Bourbon: “We've got a lot of plays, a lot of memories with each other.”
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Those memories have turned into present moments. Green, the son of former Notre Dame and Chicago Bears running back Mark Green, and Bourbon, a third basemen on Stevenson's varsity baseball team, joined the varsity squad full-time as sophomores and played an important role in the Patriots’ 8-3 season last year.
Bourbon threw for 2,400 yards and 17 touchdowns, while Green ranked third in receptions (31) and yards (516) and added a team-high six touchdowns.
The underclassmen played well but faced inevitable hardships as underclassmen – Bourbon threw six interceptions in the team’s first four games, and Green’s production dipped in the middle of the season – and a year of experience has given the pair the confidence and maturity to grab the offensive reins and produce as they know they’ll be expected to.
“They are leaders on the field, they’re more vocal and they lead by example,” head coach Bill McNamara said. “The team rallies around them because they work as hard as anyone out there. They have just really grown up in terms of their leadership role.”
But that adjustment from role players to key contributors didn't come naturally. So the pair took it upon themselves in the offseason to make sure there weren’t any bumps in the road when they hit the ground running on Day 1. Their joint efforts this past offseason increased already-high expectations, but it also made it easier for both see the same visions and goals they had both as individuals and teammates.
“It’s huge to know that you've got a guy that really wants to work,” Bourbon said. “We all have the same goals. You’re not gonna mess around off the field and do things that you don’t want to get yourself into. So when you’ve got guys striving for the same things that you are, it’s a big plus.”
Bourbon is entrenched as the starter and McNamara plans to make Green a focal point of the Stevenson offense – “when [Cam] needs the ball we’ll get him the ball” – after the departure of senior Alan Velev (38 receptions, 877 yards, 6 TDs). But like any great quarterback-wide receiver combination, years of experience together has allowed Bourbon to know when and where Green is going to run, and Green to know where Bourbon is going to place the ball when a play breaks down.
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“They wink at each other and they know what’s going to happen; they rub their arm and something’s going to happen,” McNamara said. “They have all kinds of unique things and little changes that they make which we talk about in our meetings, and they know how to make them. Playing together, they never have any miscues in terms of communication.”
Both Green and Bourbon began hitting their strides in the latter portion of the 2012 season – Green grabbed five touchdowns in Stevenson’s last four games, including two playoff appearances, while Bourbon threw 11 touchdowns to just four interceptions in his last seven games.
“Will is a cerebral, very smart, heady player and he’s fortunate to be able to put the physical and mental parts of the game together. It’s like having another coach on the field,” McNamara said. “And Cameron is just a freak athlete. He hasn't shaved yet, and this kid’s 6-foot-3, 190 pounds and he is a phenomenal athlete. He’s kind of a freak of nature. You put the ball up there and he’ll go get it.”
The pair has done everything possible to ready them for the season. Lifting weights in the winter and spring while fulfilling their duties on the varsity basketball (Green) and baseball (Bourbon) teams, respectively, running routes on their own time in the summer combined with their natural skill sets have given them the camaraderie they hope will pay dividends late in the fall.
Though the pair struggled in the Patriots' season opener last night, they did connect on a 31-yard pass late in the fourth quarter, trailing 15-14. Bourbon finished with 171 yards on 9-for-23 passing and Green added three catches for 63 yards.
“We understand how each other works on and off the field, and it helps us make plays out here,” Green said. “We've just got to play better than we did last year. We can never play down one play. Every single play we've got to go hard.”
Judging from the time and effort they have put in since they were dominating on the Buffalo Grove fields years ago, that shouldn't be a problem.