It was Aug. 8, the first official day of football practice. Batavia's coaches were putting the players through their paces.
A reporter was on hand and after the session he told head coach Dennis Piron he was impressed with the "style" of the coaches, Piron said, no screaming and yelling.
"This is just kind of how it is," Piron said more recently, after doubles had come and gone. "The kids worked very, very hard and they earned our respect, and they deserve it."
Time and again on the field after a big win, especially later in the season when teams may have conference championships or a playoff berth ahead of them, you'll hear coaches end their postgame address by saying, "Now, don't do anything stupid."
Everyone knows what that means.
For the overwhelming majority of high school players who won't play in college the game of football, or any prep sport, is mainly about teamwork and shared goals, about camaraderie and trust and fun.
"It's something that's a vehicle that allows them to be a part of something and make positive life decisions," as Piron said.
"Hopefully being part of something like a football program allows them to ... make better, sound decisions, and make them more often."
Especially since he plies his trade in the town he grew up in and coaches the team for which he once played, Piron takes this to heart. He energetically supports numerous football activities, from the "Little Bulldogs" youth camps to sending the varsity linemen to West Aurora's Battle of the Big Butts Challenge, to various 7-on-7 competitions over the summer.
It rubbed off on Piron from his predecessor, Mike Gaspari, that high school sports provide a "safe haven for kids to go to," Piron said.
These activities aren't solely altruistic. They're designed to create consistency within the program and make better Batavia football players.
And if they can also create a sense of responsibility to oneself and to peers, that's something everyone can shout about.
"Given the opportunity to make a bad choice, maybe you'll go with the good choice more often than the bad," Piron said. "That's what we have to hope for as coaches. And parents.
"I hope it's just another reason to make a good decision. We're all doing, together, the best job that we can."
For those about to leave, we salute you
Unless they are named Gordie Kerkman, Joe Newton or Gene Pingatore, coaches eventually come and go -- from school to school, from coaching into administration or solely the classroom, or from active service into retirement.
In this job, witnessing such a transition can be difficult. A relationship ends, and the position feels diminished by an equal amount. In perfect situations -- like Piron succeeding Mike Gaspari at Batavia, or Phil Ralston following Tim Pease at Geneva -- balance is restored by the arrival of a wonderful successor.
We're lucky to meet folks like St. Charles North's Mark Gould, who after this academic year is retiring after 34 years as a teacher and football coach. Over the past couple football seasons he's suffered excruciating losses that might have some coaches pulling out hair and storming off the field. Gould faces the music, answers questions and is not afraid to stand by decisions or even to admit he maybe should have done something differently.
Character aside, friendly coaches such as Mark Gould are cherished by writers for their wit, candor and self-effacing humor.
Asked why he was retiring, he said he discussed benefits options and such with his wife, Lori, before signing this final contract.
"She pretty much said: 'Do the math, dummy.'"
What will he do in his retirement?
"My wife and I are pretty much under negotiations on what will happen," he said.
The North Stars have gone to a spread offense this season. Assistant coach Jared McCall, who was the defensive coordinator, takes over on the other side of the ball.
"I just kind of fired the offensive coordinator," Gould said. "Which was me."
Burgess Field 2.0
On the Geneva High School website there's a nifty time-lapse view of the completed turf project at Burgess Field.
It started in earnest in mid-May, was in tear-down mode by May 24 and resembled a fresh construction site from the end of May through the first full week of June. The field's loose foundation was formed and smoothed through most of July until the first pieces of turf were laid on June 27. The camera catches daily progress through full completion on Aug. 15.
"It's done, ready to go," said Vikings coach Rob Wicinski. "It'll be interesting. I guess we've got to go five-wide."
That's not going to happen, at least right off the bat for the noted grinder.
"I'm not much for change when things are going all right," Wicinski said. "I'm a little conservative about it, optimistic a little bit, but we'll see what happens.
"I'm cautiously optimistic. I think it'll be fun for the kids, they're going to be jacked up about it, and I suppose our opponents will, too."
He's got to have mixed feelings, at least before playing on the new, faster surface. If Wicinski didn't exactly enjoy the muddy turf of the old Burgess Field, he held it as a home-field advantage.
Of course, the new field has myriad advantages for not only the football team but the many other teams that will utilize it, including physical education classes and marching band.
He's actually avoided practicing on it, still considering it the stadium a "special" place to be used mainly on Friday nights. He conceded the team "was able to get out there a little bit" when it rained during early practices, and that's when the true benefit was revealed.
"Man, it's nice to have footing when the rain comes down, it's nice," he said. "Rain would wipe out our practice. Our field would be a mud pit."
Not everybody knows his name
Football coaches and others of a certain age may remember a television show called "Cheers," one of the most popular comedies in broadcast history.
When the St. Charles East staff made a quip about Sam Malone, the character played by actor Ted Danson, to a real Sam Malone -- the Saints senior defensive tackle -- all it drew was a blank stare.
"He just looked at us oddly," said Saints coach Mike Fields.
"You know your staff's getting old when you mention Sam Malone and 'Cheers' and they don't know who the heck that is," he said.
The generation gap is further revealed, Fields said, by players who tease the Saints staff that they are unclear of the concept of Twitter and "tweeting."
"They make fun of us every chance they get," Fields said. "They're a good group of kids."
Defying logic and reason
Last Saturday presented a unique football doubleheader at St. Francis.
First the Spartans engaged in their annual intersquad scrimmage. Then came a special event dubbed, "Remember the Spartans, St. Francis Alumni Football Classic."
Forty-eight former St. Francis players, traveling from as far away as California, played a game pitting graduates from the classes of 1988-94 against those from 1995-2001.
"Someone else came from Colorado. That's how much they wanted to relive their youth," said Ann Dixon-Brundage, Class of 1986, with St. Francis' Alumni Association.
The oldest player was Steve Keough, Class of 1988. His side lost 20-0 to the more youthful Spartans including Tim Skryd, Ryan Hogan, Rob Kruml, Jeff Moorhouse and Pat Virtue, the Californian.
This was real football, with practices leading up to the game, players wearing full pads and hitting hard.
"There were no severe injuries for either team, so it was a great success," Dixon-Brundage reported.
Planned by graduates Kevin Read and Charlie Walsh -- out of the Class of 1991, he lined up against his younger brother, Mike -- it was not only an exercise in self-destruction but a fundraiser as well. More than $16,000 worth of new football equipment was donated to the program, and $18,000 was raised for the school's scholarship fund. Even the split-the-pot raised $1,500 from the crowd of over 800. (Additional donations may be made at email@example.com)
It was a throwback to a reunion game the late Immaculate Conception coach Jack Lewis and former Spartans coach Mike Mariani planned decades ago. Mariani's wife, Shirley, accepted an award on her husband's behalf at halftime.
The former Spartans had such a good time they stayed on the field a half-hour after the game, then retired to an establishment to continue the festivities.
"I think they were crazy," Dixon-Brundage said, "but hey, it went to a good cause."
In the sunshine once more
Thankfully, Ben Wilson is another coach back in the fold.
Wheaton Academy's head coach since 2006, when the program emerged after 19 years of dormancy, Wilson resigned Jan. 18 following a seven-hour surgery in October 2011 to remove a benign, golf ball-sized tumor at the base of his brain between the pituitary gland and optic nerves. A week later he had follow-up surgery to clean up blood in the brain that was causing seizures.
Doctors later told him 60 percent of people who have that surgery don't return to work due to changes in brain function. When Wilson woke up the next day and asked who won the prior night's World Series game and checked his fantasy football stats, they knew he was in decent shape.
A receiver on Maine South's 1995 state title team, Wilson is back teaching physics at Wheaton Academy, and better yet he is new Warriors coach T.J. Ragan's assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.
"He's been invaluable," said Ragan. "I've been very impressed because he's a man that for six years poured his life into the program, and it was not about him."
Ragan, who'd spoken and even met with Wilson prior to arriving from Colorado's Valor Christian High School, asked Wilson this spring if he would consider returning to the program.
"He really wanted to pick my brain on a lot of things," Wilson said, no pun intended.
There was a question of stamina, but Wilson said his energy level is getting back to normal. A biannual MRI identified a BB-sized tumor remnant, but it hasn't changed in size and doesn't seem to be an issue. Wilson said his health is "on an upswing."
"For me the biggest thing is when I'm back out on the field coaching I'm just thankful to God for blessing me with health right now," Wilson said. "I'm incredibly grateful just for being out there ... being out there in the sunshine and doing what I love."
A crowded dais
Seven Aurora high school football coaches and Aurora University coach Mark Walsh will discuss their teams in Football Coaches Night at Luigi's Pizza and Fun Center in Aurora from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Aug. 29.
The eighth annual Fox Valley pigskin preview, presented by the Aurora Noon Lions Club, will feature Marmion's Dan Thorpe, always fun to listen to, along with the inspirational Don Beebe of state champion Aurora Christian, Aurora Central Catholic's Brian Casey, West Aurora's Nate Eimer and Mooseheart's Gary Urwiler among the locals.
For those seeking the scoop on a favorite this season in the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division, former Marmion and current Waubonsie Valley coach Paul Murphy, a future Illinois High School Football Coaches Association hall of famer (it says here), will talk about his Warriors. Former Chicago Bear Kurt Becker, who had the guts to forsake prosperity as a Thorpe assistant at Marmion to tackle the program at his alma mater, East Aurora, will speak as well.
This is a benefit, with proceeds from the $10 admission benefiting the Lions Club's vision- and hearing-impaired programs. A pasta and pizza dinner is part of the package as are door prizes and a raffle. Tickets are available in advance and at the door; call (630) 921-1307 for details.