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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010 02:18 pm

The glories of Illinois high school football

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Dusty, Derek, and Mr. Do-right: High School Football in Illinois, by Taylor Bell. University of Illinois Press. $22.95.
During the first days of September, as temperatures across Illinois remain in the 80s, it is difficult to think about the cool weather of fall and the excitement of Thanksgiving weekend when high school football championships will be decided at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Across the state, high school athletes of various heights, weights and abilities are living that dream as they don their pads and begin the new football season. There is a lure to high school football that separates the game from big-time college and professional football. Perhaps it comes from the fact that there is a place for small schools and players who accomplish something with desire rather than size and speed. Perhaps it comes from the overall high school experience that many never outgrow. Whatever the explanation, the Illinois high school football season is eagerly anticipated by many.

For more than 40 years, Taylor Bell covered high school sports in Illinois. Dusty, Derek and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football in Illinois is Bell’s tribute to a sport he covered during his career as a journalist. It is a collection of vignettes that cover players, coaches, teams and memorable games that all contribute to the lore of Illinois high school football. Whether you are a passionate lover of the game, or just a mildly interested fan, you will find this book wonderful and enlightening. Mixing sports clichés may not be appropriate, but this book is simply a home run, indeed a grand-slam walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Bell’s writing is a cornucopia of information for football fans. We learn that Dick Butkus played multiple positions in his Chicago high school, including offensive and defensive line, fullback and place-kicker. Butkus, of course, played offense and defense at the University of Illinois because most players in the 1960s were two-way athletes. Butkus attended Illinois because Notre Dame, his first choice, would not allow football players to be married. The wisdom of his decision was clear in the 1963 season when he led Illinois to victory in one of its infrequent Rose Bowl appearances. Helen and Dick Butkus were high school sweethearts, joined in matrimony in 1963 and still husband and wife.

The player section of the book reminds readers of the contributions of Illinois high schoolers to college and professional football. NFL most valuable players, Super Bowl stars and Heisman Trophy winners can trace their roots to high school fields from Chicago to East St. Louis. Taylor Bell acknowledges many in his book.

Coaches as well are remembered. Local fans will appreciate the section on Ken Leonard and Sacred-Heart Griffin and their recent championships. From Arcola to Bloomington to Decatur, many central Illinois fans will find coverage of their high school.

Most interesting are the chapters devoted to the coaches. There is something special about high school coaches of all sports. Anyone familiar with high school coaches knows that they are devoted to their players and to their game. There are no million-dollar contracts in high school, no private jets or luxury homes. But the great high school coaches from Murney Lazier to Bob Reade to Pat Cronin and Gordon Gillespie shared common values for their players. They stressed fundamentals, preparation, discipline, and, most important of all, education. All of the coaches were as interested in how many of their players graduated from college as how many victories they achieved.

Like its big brothers in the NCAA and the NFL, high school football is a different game in the 21st century. High school teams are far more sophisticated in their game plans than they were in previous decades. For many teams and players, football is a year-round effort, the number of multi-sport high school athletes is dwindling. Yet, high school football remains a great game and Taylor Bell has captured what makes the game great in this bible of Illinois high school football.

Retired Judge Stuart Shiffman of Springfield gained valuable “bench” experience in the 1960s during a brief¬† football career at Evanston High School.
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