Through the highs of three appearances in the state football semifinals, to the lows of barely having enough athletes to field a team, Gary Hartje was there.
He coached football in Milledgeville for 33 seasons, the last 30 as head coach. His varsity teams compiled a 186-114 record during that span, and his name became synonymous with Missiles football.
He'll be recognized for his efforts as a member of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame class of 2014. Hartje and 12 other coaches will be inducted on Saturday, April 12 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
"It wasn't on my bucket list," Hartje said, "but it's a pleasant thing. It means a lot to me. It's something that you share with thousands of kids that went through the program. The relationships that I still have, that goes round and round, and makes me feel awfully good.
"It's an honor that I didn't expect, but it's an honor that I cherish, and will for a long time."
Hartje was nominated by Pete Robertson, who played for him in the mid 1980s and is now the athletic director at Durand, and long-time Durand coach John Schwab, himself a hall of famer.
Brad Smith, who played for Hartje in the late 1980s, was happy for his coach.
"Anybody that's been involved in football in northern Illinois identifies Milledgeville with coach Hartje," Smith said. "With the success he's had over that time frame, you can't argue with it. He had up and down years like anybody, but overall, he put a lot of good teams on the field."
Hartje was a three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) athlete at Milledgeville High School, and graduated in 1969. He went to college at Western Illinois University, graduated in 1973, worked for his father for a year, then got a job teaching and coaching in Milledgeville in 1974.
In 1976, he started coaching football, at the freshman level and as a varsity assistant, under Les Snow, who Hartje described as a "legend" in Milledgeville. Snow compiled a 99-53 record in 19 seasons (1958-76) with the Missiles, and was a 1997 IHSFCA hall of fame inductee.
In the 1977 and 1978 seasons, Hartje was an assistant to head coach Steve Parker.
In 1979, the varsity job was open, and it was offered to assistant coach Rick Malson. He turned it down, however, opening the door for Hartje, who accepted when offered the position.
"[Malson] told me he would be with me 100 percent forever," Hartje said. "He helped me through some really rough times. Between he and coach Snow, that's where I fell in love with the game. Coach Malson really should be the one being inducted."
Hartje's first team went 9-2 and made the second round of the playoffs. He remembers it was flush with talent and had 38 players, large for a 1A team.
"Looking back, I really didn't know what I was doing those first couple of years, and relied on coach Malson a lot," Hartje said. "He was with me 5 or 6 years, until I got a good handle on things. I was blessed with a lot of good help – too many to name, really. I don't want to leave anybody out."
Milledgeville qualified for the playoffs in nine of Hartje's first 12 seasons on the job, with a few games in particular that stood out.
There was a 16-14 win against Stockton in the first round of the 1986 playoffs, spurred on by a successfully executed fake field goal for a touchdown just before halftime.
"They had twin tackles that were just remarkable players," Hartje said, "but we ended up winning that ballgame."
In 1989, a 9-0 Milledgeville team hosted 9-0 Newman in the first round of the 1A playoffs. The Comets prevailed 22-20 against a Missiles team that was nicknamed the "Smurfs," as they only had two players weighing more than 160 pounds.
"We were all undersized and really had no business being on the same field with Newman that day," said Smith, one of the Smurfs on that team, "but Coach had a good game plan and kept us close. It didn't work out in the fourth quarter, but it was a lot of fun."
The first Milledgeville team to make a deep playoff run was in 1998, when it made the semifinals before falling to Carthage 30-14.
"We had never been beyond the second round," Hartje said, "so that was a really big moment."
Hartje's last team, in the fall of 2008, was one of his finest. Led by quarterback Kirk Engelkens, the Missiles went 9-0 in the regular season, then handled Deer Creek-Mackinaw, Wethersfield and Galena in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
In the semifinals against Stark County, Milledgeville raced out to an 18-0 lead in the game's opening minutes, but were unable to sustain that momentum. The Rebels ended up rallying for a 27-24 victory, a result Hartje says "still sticks in my craw to this day."
"I think I might have sat on my hands a little bit, didn't stay aggressive, and that's the way that group was," Hartje said. "That was one I'll never get over. Those kids, they were playing for me that year, and they didn't need to be. I kept reminding them of that – this is your ballclub, not mine.
"That was a tough one to take, and still is. I've only watched the film once. I don't want to watch it again, but maybe I will one of these days."
Hartje had opportunities to leave his alma mater, he said, as a number of area schools approached him over the years about coaching positions. He'd listen, especially when the Milledgeville administration didn't do things as he saw fit, but he never was close to leaving.
"That was a brief thought, if anything," Hartje said. "I never did want to go, and still don't."
Nowadays, Hartje fills his time with golfing, fishing and attending games played by his four grandchildren. It's basic retirement stuff, though he still dabbles in football, with the Milledgeville junior tackle program.
"I really, really miss the football," Hartje said, "and that's why junior tackle keeps me going right now."
High school: Milledgeville, 1969
College: Western Illinois, 1973
FYI: Started teaching and coaching in Milledgeville in 1974. ... Compiled 186-114 record in 30 seasons as varsity football coach. ... Will be inducted into Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame on April 12