Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I thought of John Cheever, that...

...famous chronicler of mid-century American WASP culture, as I sat on the Benet side of the field Friday night and the Loyola side on Saturday afternoon. Why? I'll get to that in a minute.

But first, the games.

On Friday afternoon I drove down I-94 as far as it would go, turning into the Bishop Ford Freeway and then Illinois 394 South toward Danville. In the middle of a sea of corn fields I turned right onto East Exchange Street en route to Crete-Monee High School and the game against Benet Academy. I texted my friend Kevin: Where on earth is this place?

I had been looking forward to this game for several months. The two teams were both ranked and undefeated going into the contest. Crete-Monee, the defending 6A champs, had a 17-game winning streak on the line. And Benet, for its part, made it to the semifinals of 7A last year.

I was early, of course, in order to beat the traffic and stopped to pregame at a bar called Chuck's on the main drag in downtown Crete. ("Pregame," in case you don't know, is now often used as a verb.) I had a killer steak burrito and a non-alcoholic beer and found out from one of the patrons that a "new" Crete-Monee High School was constructed in 2007, just west of the old building, and that it was "silly nice."

(According to Wikipedia, the new structure cost $60 million. And it's not hard to believe; it's a beautiful building. What is hard to believe, though, is that the school district was able to raise that kind of money in the first place. But, after all, it was before the Great Recession.)

After my dinner I drove the short distance to the football field which was actually closer to the "old" building, now a middle school I think. There was a party going on in the parking lot; apparently it was Homecoming at Crete-Monee and a number of graduates had returned for the event. As I said, it was quite the wing-ding and it was announced later over the P. A. that fireworks would follow the game. Fireworks? Really? At a football game? Just go with it, I thought.

I got to the stadium in time to see the end of the sophomore game, which could have been taken as foreshadowing. Despite another Treadwell, in this case Juwuan, the Warriors of Crete-Monee got blanked, 26-0, by the visiting Redwings.

The varsity game was similar. With five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Benet placekicker John Duvic recorded the first of his five field goals for the night. From then on it was all Benet. You can read the accounts in the papers, but suffice it to say that the Redwings outplayed Crete in every aspect of the game. If not for a blocked punt midway through the third quarter which resulted in a Crete touchdown (which was answered, in turn, by a touchdown on the ensuing kick-off by Brad Sznajder of Benet), the game would have also ended in a shutout.

As I walked out I thought about the two teams I had just watched.

(They turned out the lights, by the way, just as soon as the clock ran down to 0:00. "Boy," I said to the woman next to me, "They must want us to leave!" "No," she laughed. "It's time for the fireworks." "Oh.")

While I don't expect to hear a whole lot more about Crete-Monee this season, Benet is a bit of a puzzle to me. Here's a team that came out of nowhere last year to reach the 7A semifinals against Lincoln-Way East. This year, after losing its star running back, Porter Ontko, in Week Two, the Redwings' offense might have been expected to struggle. But in the past two games, after Ontko was injured, Benet actually scored more points (67 vs. 62).

Are these guys for real? Hard to tell. On the one hand, Sznajder, as I mentioned yesterday, is the quickest running back I've seen this year and Duvic may be the best placekicker I have ever seen. But the offense only scored one touchdown against the Warriors. (Sznajder's kickoff return, a safety and Duvic's five field goals accounted for the rest of the scoring.) So can a team like Benet go deep in the playoffs relying on their kicker for 15 points or so a game? Or, if you have a kicker like Duvic who can score three points every time you get within, say, the 30-yard line, isn't that a huge advantage? I tend to think the latter. These guys could be truly dangerous in 7A this year.

On Saturday, The Loyola game pitted two of the best teams in the state, Providence and the home team Ramblers.

As I mentioned yesterday, my cousin's husband told me that the Celtics had some huge offensive linemen this year. And, boy, was he right! Also, the New Lenox squad has a solid defense (allowing only 28 points, the fewest Loyola has scored this year), a workhorse running back in Dominic Lagone and a bevy of talented receivers (if only they could get the ball to them).

The Ramblers, on the other hand, are a typical Loyola team: no stars, no Division I prospects at the skill positions, just a ton of kids who are well-coached by John Holecek. Loyola, the largest school in the Catholic League, is able through sheer numbers to reload each year. (I counted, in fact, at least 60 kids on the sophomore team and a guy in the stands told me they had three freshman teams.)

To illustrate Loyola's depth, star running back Julius Holley left the game in the middle of the third quarter with what appeared to be leg cramps. Tough break for the Ramblers, I thought. But then his replacement, another senior named Donnel Haley, came in and immediately rushed for two big gains. (Holley, Haley; who's next, Healey?)

That's not to say that the Ramblers aren't talented; they are. But, to give you an idea, I read that Loyola's quarterback, Jack Penn, is more interested in playing lacrosse in college than football. Can you think of another ranked team in the state of Illinois whose quarterback isn't dying to play at least Division III football?

The actual contest was one of the best I've seen this year with the score tied at 14 at the half. Loyola pulled away after intermission, however, and won, 28-16. It's hard to tell how truly good they are, but the showdown at home against Mount Carmel on October 5 should be a doozy (especially if both teams are undefeated going into the game).

Now, I know what you're thinking: So what about John Cheever? What does he have to do with all of this? Fair question.

Believe it or not, I don't go to high school football games just to watch the action on the field. (If I did, I would be more likely to follow college or pro football.) No, I approach it in a more holistic fashion, i. e., as the amateur sociologist, or anthropologist, or whatever, that I imagine myself to be. I take note of the kids, their parents, the rest of the fans, the school itself and the town in an effort to see what, if any, larger conclusions I can draw. And that's where Cheever comes in, at least this weekend.

When I go to a game I usually sit on the home side of the stadium; I like to be high up to see better. But on Friday night, due to Homecoming, the Crete side was a little too crowded for my (crabby old man) taste and so I staked out a spot on the top of the Benet bleachers at about the 50-yard line. Beautiful! The crowd filled in by game time, though, and there was very little room by the kickoff. Minutes before the National Anthem was played a couple about my age (actually, probably a little younger; everyone seems to be younger than me all of a sudden) came up and asked if there was room near me to sit. "Sure," I said. "Come on up."

The woman stuck out her hand and introduced herself. I reciprocated and then her husband and I looked at each other awkwardly as if to say, "Who introduces themselves to someone at a football game?" I broke the ice, though, and shook his hand in the hope that we could just move on.

But then the Third Degree began.

"So," the woman asked. "Do you have a son on the team?"


"The sophomore team?"


"Do you just have a kid at the school?"


Her husband, groping for the next suitable question, started in. "Do you live in Lisle?"

It was time for me to put an end to this. "No, I actually live in Glenview. I just like to watch high school football games."

He and the guy in front of me (who must have heard the whole uncomfortable exchange and turned around at that point) both got a look on their face as if I had said, "I'm actually an out-of-work high school chemistry teacher who is now cooking meth for a living."

We then turned, in silence, to the game.

But as I looked around at the rest of the Benet fans I noticed how well-mannered, well-dressed, well-groomed and ... well-turned out they all were. They looked like the prosperous executives of large respectable corporations in Oak Brook and the Loop who didn't smoke or drink too much or use bad language and expected all of their perfect children to go on to prestigious colleges after Benet and repeat the whole process.

And it reminded me of something I've been thinking about for a while now: are today's Catholics the new WASPs?

Take Loyola, for example. I've been going to games there since my brother was a freshman back in 1962. And for some time now, I've been thinking of it as the "Catholic New Trier." (Except that, unlike New Trier, Loyola costs almost $15,000 a year. And most people, according to my other cousin's husband who sat next to me, pay full fare. That's sixty grand before you even get to college -- for each kid!) And everyone in the stands looks rich: doctors (specialists, I'm sure), partners at downtown law firms or just To The Manner Born. The fans are well-dressed in a casual sort of way, like they just walked off the golf course or are headed to the grill at the club for dinner afterward. And the decals on the rear windshields of the cars in the parking lot all have the names of exotic-sounding East Coast schools that my Midwestern tongue has difficulty pronouncing: Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth. (I once heard of a parent who said she didn't want her kid to go to a college with a direction in the name, like Northern Illinois or Western Michigan.)

Since the denizens of the North Shore of Long Island, Westchester County and Connecticut whom Cheever wrote so well about, who prepped at St. Grottlesex and then graduated from Yale or Harvard, went on to successful careers on Wall Street where they made their livings, as James Grant once said, "the old-fashioned way: by trading stocks on good, reliable inside information" are now largely extinct, have Catholics taken their place?

Think about it: when was the last time you met an Episcopalian? Or a Presbyterian? How about a Congregationalist? (Have you ever met a Congregationalist?) It seems to me that modern-day America is made up essentially of three main groups: Evangelicals, Catholics and Everybody Else, which includes blacks, Asians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, the secular, and -- oh, yeah -- the occasional member of one of those dying mainline Protestant denominations.

And of these three, aren't Catholics the new WASPs? Aren't they more likely to be clean-cut, clean-living, respectable Republicans who eat steak, drink cocktails and play golf (and watch football) on weekends? Don't their sons grow up wearing ties and their daughters plaid skirts? (I knew a guy once, not a Catholic, who learned how to tie a tie while walking onto the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade for his first day on the job.) And they send their kids to Catholic grade schools like the one in my town where the students all look like English boarding school kids. (Ironic, isn't it, since many of their Irish Catholic ancestors, like mine, were getting persecuted by those same English just a few generations ago?) Really, though, aren't places like Benet Academy and Loyola Academy (and St. Ignatius) Chicago's answer to St. Grottlesex?

Have Catholics been aping WASPs for so long now that they have actually become them? Wouldn't a modern-day John Cheever be writing about them?

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