By Mark Maxwell
For some, football is merely a game. To the Schaumburg Saxons, football is a fight.
The Saxons have battled their way to a 6-0 record this season, including a quality 12-point win at home over Barrington (5-1). Every day before practice, coach Mark Stilling places a yellow two-by-four at the foot of the lone entrance gate to the football field. Every player walks directly over this board on their way to and from practice. On the board, painted in black letters, reads the phrase “Fight Like a Champion.”
This season is not only special to the Saxons because of their spotless record. The school and the community have rallied behind one of their very own, a 2001 Schaumburg graduate and All-State strong safety, Eric Von Schaumburg. Sharing his namesake with his hometown, the star high school player wore "Schaumburg" on the front and back of his jersey. During his breakout junior season, Von Schaumburg led the state in interceptions and took his Saxons (11-3) all the way to the 6A state championship, where they ended up in second place.
In July, Von Schaumburg contracted ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The 2013 Saxons have adopted Von Schaumburg’s story as their inspiration and battle cry this season. Eric’s brother Josh told CSNChicago.com that Eric maintains his optimism and is very hopeful for the future. Recent clinical trials have yielded promising results and tremendous breakthroughs. Eric’s story reminds his fellow Saxons that football — and life — is all about overcoming adversity.
From top to bottom, the entire Saxon team is focused on each game and the challenges that accompany them. Senior guard and team leader Matt Zolper has grasped the message from his coach and fellow Saxon.
“We've had adversity all year,” Zolper said. “We've had a lot of things thrown at us, and we've responded really well. This year, for example, coach (Mike) Donatucci coached here last year, so he's wanting to come back here and get a huge win and lift his team up. We're also here to try and stay undefeated and get ready for the playoffs. It's no pushover.”
Donatucci, who coached at Schaumburg last season, is the first-year coach at Hoffman Estates. Donatucci ran a successful football squad at Fremd (142-63) before he took an assistant coaching job at Schaumburg for one year. The Saxons prepared all week to face off against their old coach on Friday night.
Zolper spends his fall Friday evenings protecting a dynamic quarterback, Stacey Smith. Smith’s sensational season has been a key factor in the perfect start for the Saxons. The senior poses as a dual threat, and more often than not, he creates headaches for the coaches on the opposing sidelines.
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For years now, Smith has had incredible raw talent. Perhaps for the first time in his high school uniform, all of the talent and ability has come together in harmony with his mindset and approach to the game this season under coach Stilling.
“The best thing about (Stacey) this season is that he is allowing things to happen instead of forcing things to happen,” Stilling said.
Smith talked about his six opponents this season with a grin.
“They got to stop us, but they can't do it. We make plays,” Smith said. “We make a lot of big plays during the game, but it all has to do with the O-line a lot. They push their guys way off the line, so that gives us the room to run.”
Smith continued by talking about their highly anticipated matchup with Hoffman Estates.
“We play for each other on every down,” he said. “We come off the field, and we keep the defense going up and we're telling them we're going to put points on the board. We're going to get the 'W.' We know (the Hawks) are going to throw a lot of different looks at us this week. We got to keep our composure and just play ball like we have been all season.”
Even amid a perfect start to the season and a continuously rising ranking, Stilling knows it is imperative for his players to stay humble and grounded.
“I think they have been very focused so far,” Stilling said. “We told them after the Barrington game that if they paid close enough attention, a lot of people will try to convince them that they are really good. I said, 'That's probably true, but they aren't going to tell you how much better we need to get.’ I think they've taken that to heart.”
The added emphasis on staying the course and overcoming adversity has struck a chord with senior strong safety Sadarriss Patterson. Playing the same position as the aforementioned Von Schaumburg, Patterson wants his senior year to finish undefeated.
“Week after week, win after win, we all really get that into our mentality and our heart,” Patterson said. “We all have had this plan for a long time — since way before the season started. As we get win after win, it really starts to drill into our heads and let everybody know that we're coming out there to play ball week after week. Every possession, every snap, we all go out there with the same mentality, the same drive, the same passion. We're mostly a work ethic defense. A heart defense. We just go out there and really give it our all.”
“The whole deal with fight like a champion is not giving in and finding ways to fight and not give in. We remind the kids of that on a daily basis,” Stilling said.
Friday night, Oct. 25, has been named “Fight Like a Champion Night” at Schaumburg High School. Bears and Blackhawks tickets are among some of the raffle prizes available at the event. All proceeds will go toward Von Schaumburg’s medical expenses. To learn more about Eric Von Schaumburg’s inspiring story, visit fightlikeachampion.org.