Twenty-four state champs reunite for Newman
"Tradition" is a word you hear a lot when it comes to high school sports. When it comes to Newman football, however, the word doesn't seem to have the punch necessary to convey all that it means for the Blue Machine.
So here's something that might describe a little better what it means to be part of the Newman football family: 24 players on the Comets' alumni football roster played for state championship teams while in high school.
The Comets have won four state titles, the first in 1990 and the last in 2010. During that 2-decade span, players have come and gone, but the names have remained of those groups who have won it all.
"It's kind an unspoken bond," said Brian Burrs, a farmer in Dixon who played on the first Newman title team in 1990. "We have something in common, and even with the age difference, it's still special. It feels like we started something, and the younger guys have been able to keep it rolling.
"It's a real treat to be back on the field, playing with those guys, and it means an awful lot to all of us."
Burrs' brother, Brad, was on the 1994 state title team. Being 4 years apart, the brothers never played together; Brian is psyched he'll get the chance.
They're just one of seven brother combinations who will suit up for the Comets Saturday evening against Morrison. Of that group, five of the duos won state titles either together or separately.
But "brother" isn't just a relative term at Newman. In the ultimate family atmosphere of a smaller school, most of the younger Comets consider the older guys as part of their extended family, and vice versa.
"I never thought I'd have the opportunity to even meet most of those older guys," said Nate Ackert, a member of the 2010 title team who currently plays at St. Ambrose. "Now, to think that I'll be in pads lining up next to them on the field, it's a great honor."
Growing up in a close-knit atmosphere, it's impossible for the more recent players to avoid hearing the names and accolades of those who have come before them.
This game gives them a chance to be actual teammates, on top of being joined together in the annals of Comet fooball lore.
"You grow up hearing the names of guys who paved the way, and living in the legacy they left behind," said Nate Driessens, a teacher in Lisle who was on the 2004 titleists. "I remember playing off to the side during games in 1998, watching Andrew Papoccia and guys like that, and now I get to line up in the backfield with him. I'm ecstatic and awed to be playing with the great generations of Newman football."
The older generation is just as impressed with the younger guys' accomplishments. Veterans like Burrs are pleased with how well the guys behind them lived up to the milestones and high bar he and his brother's team set.
"I'm getting to play with the older guys who I looked up to, but also getting to know some of the younger guys who looked up to us," said Chris Hemminger, a Rock Falls truck driver who played on the 1994 championship squad. "These are guys who you never thought it would be possible to play with, and it's been a lot of fun being out there with so many fellow Comets."
The game plan will likely be the same: ground and pound out if the wishbone, and maybe take to the air a few times as the game wears on.
But as Driessens pointed out, there is very little mental preparation necessary for the Comets, no matter which state team they played on.
"We joked when we first went out there for practice that we're all the same," said Dreissens, who played college ball at Benedictine. "The first play, somebody yelled 'Power Right Guard,' and every one of us knew exactly what that was.
"That's just the tradition of the program, and it's worked well over the years. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and we're taking that mentality into the game Saturday."
Newman alumni roster FYI
Former state shamps
1990 team: Brian Burrs, Jason Graham, Matthew Harms, Gary Velasquez
1994 team: Brad Burrs, David Dempsey, Matt Fredericks, Chris Hemminger, Brett Papoccia, Ryan Velasquez, Jeremy Vondra, Larry Ybarra
2004 team: Nathan Driessens, Corey Gabler, Zac Holmes, Austin Morgan
2010 team: Nathan Ackert, Brian Bahrs, Lucas Nease, Travis Nease, Carlos Salazar, Josh Shipman, Daniel Trygstad, Jake Walls
Brad and Brian Burrs; Sam and Seth Cassens; Greg and Matt Miller; Lucas and Travis Nease; Andrew and Brett Papoccia; Dugan and Dustin Repass; Gary and Ryan Velasquez
Curt, Dugan and Dustin Repass