Sunday, October 27, 2013

I went out to Wheaton Friday night... see Glenbard North play Wheaton North in what was the de facto championship of the DuPage Valley Conference.

Now, before I go any further, it's worth asking the question: Did I go to the right game? My other choices were undefeated Loyola at St. Rita, or undefeated Lake Zurich at Stevenson. And while both unbeaten teams went down to defeat, only the latter was a truly good game: the Patriots overcame a 17-point deficit to upset the Bears, 24-17. (The other contest, which I watched on TV on Saturday morning, was fairly one-sided from the get-go: Tommy Mister St. Rita beat the Ramblers convincingly, 31-19.)

By the way, two other undefeated schools in the top classes went down this weekend, and both in overtime: 6A Rock Island to Peoria Notre Dame, 34-33, and 5A Rich Central to Crete-Monee, 27-26. (I had toyed with the idea of attending that last one with my buddy Kevin, who lives in nearby Flossmoor, but family obligations prevented me.) So that leaves only nine unbeaten squads in the top four classes:

8A: Bolingbrook (seen 'em);
7A: Whitney Young (seen 'em) and Edwardsville;
6A: Boylan;
5A: Montini, Sycamore, Washington, University and Glenbard South.

In addition, there are still four undefeated teams in 4A, 3A, and 2A; and seven in 1A. (I can't follow everybody closely; besides, most of these schools are well outside the Chicago area.)

So, again, did I go to the right game? I think so, and so did the guy sitting next to me. (More on him in a minute.) While Tommy Mister put on quite a show against Loyola, scoring four touchdowns, I think I'll still have more chances to see him. And even though Lake Zurich - Stevenson turned out to be the best game of the night, I've already seen the Bears and feel like I'll have ample opportunities to watch the Patriots in the next few weeks.

But on Friday night, GBN's star running back Justin Jackson put on a show of his own, rushing for over 300 yards, four touchdowns and adding two interceptions and several tackles on defense! (The guy next to me wondered if he'd be more valuable at Northwestern next year as a running or a defensive back; good question.) Even though I saw Jackson the previous week against Wheaton Warrenville South, you just can't get enough of him. If he's not the Player of the Year I don't know who else would be.

Before I got to the actual game on Friday, I took a short spin around the town of Wheaton. As always, in order to beat the traffic I drove out there early. My first stop, after passing Cosley Zoo on Gary Avenue, was Wheaton College near downtown, the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and moviemaker Wes Craven (seriously). It was very pleasant in the late afternoon sun so I got out and strolled around the campus a little (another thing my father would have done). It seemed like a typical small, private liberal arts college until I walked past the sign, above. For Christ and His Kingdom. Yikes! (I wondered what my Jewish friends would do if they read that. Probably run.) It reminded me of a friend of mine who was raised in a fundamentalist Protestant family, went to Wheaton, became an Episcopal minister for fifteen years and dropped out after a crisis of faith. He's now an agnostic and attends a Unitarian church. And I thought, that must have taken a lot of guts to break from that kind of background and become a free-thinker. Good for him!

Incidentally, is it just me or does everyone feel a little bit like an outsider in America? I'm currently reading a memoir called Displaced Persons, by Joseph Berger, in which he recalls feeling alienated from American society as the son of Holocaust survivors even though he ultimately became a writer for that most "establishment" of newspapers, The New York Times. As for me, Wheaton College reminded me that I felt like an outsider growing up Catholic in what was then a Protestant-dominated country and, today, as a lapsed-Catholic in what is becoming more and more a Catholic-dominated society. I'd bet that even the evangelical Christians at Wheaton feel alienated from what they consider to be an increasingly secular America. In short, none of us feels like we're really in the In Crowd.

But a quick glance at my watch phone told me it was almost time for the game! So I jumped back into my convertible and made my way to the stadium. I drove past the house above on Gary Avenue and had to ask myself: Did the Dutch settle Wheaton or something? But there was no time for dawdling; it was time to park my car, get a hot dog and select just the right seat for the evening's event.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I didn't know the guy who had set up makeshift bleachers in his back yard overlooking the stadium. (You can see it near the flag if you look hard.) He had taken a page from the playbook of those apartment buildings just outside Wrigley Field on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues. He and his buddies looked like they were having a grand old time watching the game. (I wonder if the school had ever considered putting up a billboard to obstruct the view.)

Once I had found just the right seat at the top of the bleachers at about the 40-yard line and tore into my blue cheese sausage sandwich (at least I think that's what it was), an older man came up and asked if the seat next to me was taken. "No, come on up; I've been saving it just for you," I answered.

He took off his right glove, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. "I'm a Glenbard West fan," he said, just to make everything crystal-clear from the start. It turned out he was a retired lawyer from Glen Ellyn where his sons had played for the Hilltoppers. But he still attends games at Duchon Field when they're at home and DuPage Valley games on Friday nights (and the occasional Saturday game of his alma mater, Wheaton College).

"I live for high school football!" he announced and then ticked off a number of reasons why, all of which I could have listed myself. I quickly wondered, Did my family put this guy up to this? My next thought was, Will you marry me? But then he offered to share his blanket and I returned to my senses, "No, that's all right. Thanks, though." (Sometimes it's better to just be cold than sit under the same blanket with a strange man.)

But he was actually a lot of fun to sit next to and he knew every bit as much about high school football as me (which is a little scary). I learned a number of things from him about Wheaton, Wheaton College and Wheaton North in particular. (It's quite a little self-contained world out there.) He also revealed that he had once played against Dick Butkus when he was at Morgan Park High School in the late '50s and early '60s and the future Bear great was a fullback at Chicago Vocational School. "But, it's good you're sitting down," he confided, "I wasn't as good as him."

In turn, I showed him how to get other high school scores from a new-fangled thing called "Twitter."

He was really a neat old guy who grew up in the Beverly neighborhood of the city and now had a cabin in northern Minnesota, where he also followed high school football. I could tell he was a Fox News viewer, though, as he made a few disparaging remarks about "liberals" and such. (I managed to keep my mouth shut.) And at one point his Wheaton College Protestant upbringing shone through a little when he made a snide crack about Fenwick fans leaving their "whiskey bottles" behind after a playoff game at Glenbard West a few years ago. (I didn't have the heart to tell him my dad and many of my relatives graduated from the Oak Park school.)

To be fair, an old Irish Catholic from the North Shore who sat next to me at the Loyola - Mount Carmel game actually whispered the "N-word" to me a few weeks ago. My wife was a little shocked by this when I mentioned it to her later, but I told her -- rightly, I think -- that it's a generational thing. I reminded her of some of the things both of our fathers used to say -- neither of whom was what you'd call "politically correct"!

As I said, though, all in all he was a really nice guy and I enjoyed sitting next to him (even if we didn't share a blanket).

The game itself was great, although it was Senior Night and they had to introduce practically everyone at the school and his or her parents. (Why does it seem like every game I go to is Senior Night? It sets the kickoff back at least fifteen minutes!)

And there was even the obligatory guy in shorts (two, actually), above. (It never fails; it's kind of like the stoner who always shows up to sell grilled cheese sandwiches at Grateful Dead concerts!) When I pointed this out to the guy next to me he cracked me up a little. "Yeah, I know that guy. He always does that! What, I ask you, would make someone wake up in the morning and say to himself, 'This would be a good day to wear shorts'?"

I couldn't help noticing him walking back and forth along the sideline. He was older, bald, had a mustache, and reminded me of the youngest Mandelbaum from that episode from Seinfeld, above.

So the game was great even if, after scoring a touchdown to make it 26-13 with five minutes remaining in the game, the Wheaton North coach elected to kick away rather than try to get the ball back with an onside kick. (The Panthers marched down the field, scored again, and Wheaton North didn't get the ball back until there was less than a minute remaining on the clock. They took a couple of knees to end the game.) I thought that was a little odd, and my new friend said it was typical of the Falcons' coach, who "always disappoints you."

But I finally got to see Rexilius Field at Wheaton North, a beautiful setting for a game in a charming old Protestant town (albeit with a lingering history of suspicion of boozy Irish Catholic Papists like myself), made a new friend and got to watch Justin Jackson, arguably the best running back in the state, run all over another quality team.

Let the playoffs begin!

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