Playing as a cohesive unit is one of the most important factors in team sports. Doing that when you have 29 players ranging in age from 20 to 54 can be a bit of a challenge.
Just ask Troy Slusser.
One of the co-captains for the Sterling High School alumni football team, the 41-year-old Sterling resident, along with 24-year-old co-captain Miles Ripsky and 41-year-old head coach Fernando Ramirez, has done most of the heavy lifting to get the group of former Golden Warriors ready to roll for Saturday night's alumni game against Rock Falls.
"It's been a hectic challenge, but it's definitely been worth it," said Slusser, a 1991 SHS grad who currently works as a mechanic for Union Pacific Railroad. "We've worked really hard to coordinate this thing, and the three of us have really pulled things together … but I think next year, I'll give someone else the chance to do all this planning."
Slusser is the lone 40-something on the roster, and Ramirez is the only other 40-something in the Sterling group.
But they're still just pups compared to 54-year-old Kent Carl, a standout from the class of 1976 who jumped at the chance to suit up again. The main reason: to show his many family members who never got to see him play just what he's able to do in the gridiron.
"I saw a video from one of these games from down South somewhere, and it was this 53-year-old guy who was so pumped up for the game," said Carl, who has installed flooring in the Sterling area for the last 34 years. "I thought, 'Hey, I'll give it a shot.'
"It's been fun to be out here and watch all the slices of the past come together. They tease me a little bit; I've heard 'grandpa' quite a bit, but I am one, so I guess it's OK. It's all in fun, and everybody has been very respectful."
Carl, who can still remember the Warriors' now-defunct rivalry with Newman that ended his senior season in 1975, has been holding his own with the younger crowd.
On the other end of the spectrum, 22-year-old Niko Rivera is one of 15 players age 24 or younger. Rivera played 4 years of basketball at Eureka College, and he has one more semester left; he plans on playing football for the Red Devils this fall.
Rivera's memories are a bit more recent than Carl's, but they still provided a strong impetus to get him back in a Sterling football uniform again.
"I remember my last game in Morris, walking off the field and thinking I'd never put on the pads again," said Rivera, who quarterbacked the Warriors to an NCIC Reagan title as a senior in the fall of 2008. "Now, I have the opportunity to do that … and I'm very grateful. Everything you took for granted in high school – the practices, the training, the hard work – once you get through it, you realize you wish you had it to do again just one more time. Now, I can."
Alumni teammate Nick Garcia remembers his final game as well, but for different reasons. The 35-year-old graduated in 1995, and saw his playing career come to an end against Saturday's opponent when he broke his foot against the Rockets his senior season – the final year of that rivalry.
Garcia, who recently moved back to the area and is going back to school, said the difference in ages and eras is easy to overcome once everybody is back on the field.
"When you're out there sweating together, it brings you closer," Garcia said. "There's been a learning curve, with a lot of us playing for different coaches in different systems, but it's kind of been a snowball effect with everybody coming together pretty smoothly."
Ramirez has been a driving force in that, as has 24-year-old Joe Schneiderbauer, a former Sterling and North Central College standout. While Schneiderbauer has taken the leadership role on defense as a player, Coach Ramirez has been finding the right offensive blend to run with his personnel.
"I love taking the different personalities and talents – and ages – and orchestrating things as one unit," said Ramirez, a 1989 grad who was a Prop 48 recruit to Auburn but started a family instead of playing ball there. "We all share a common passion for football and our hometown, and as we worked together, things fell into place. Everyone fit in their roles and knew their responsibilities, and hopefully it will lead to a victory."
While all the players have that competitive streak and fire to win – why else would they be playing, after all? – it's the team aspect and the opportunity to play with guys they've only heard about that is the biggest treat of all.
"It's the camaraderie that pulled a lot of us back," Slusser said. "Yeah, we all love football, but you really miss the guys and the 'team' part of it all. Being back amongst these guys again is what really means the most to us."
And it's also led to the realization that no matter when you played, who you played for or what your role was on the field, the love for Golden Warrior football never fades.
"You see guys like Kent, and you can only imagine the passion they have for this game and this school," Rivera said. "That type of thing definitely rubs off on us younger guys, and hopefully we can keep this thing going through the years so I can someday be the veteran inspiring the younger guys."
Sterling alumni roster breakdown
Players in 50s: 1
Players in 40s: 1
Players in 30s: 9
Players in 20s: 18