Over 20-plus years of covering high school sports, I have talked with hundreds and hundreds of athletes.
Never do I hear more about teams being families than during football season. More specifically, I hear about brotherhoods.
So many football players over the years have told me about the special brotherhood that is their football team.
They say that because of the uniquely demanding nature of of the sport, football players better be committed to each other -- just like blood brothers are.
The season is long. And that's true long before Opening Night kickoff takes place. Preseason practices, weightlifting, conditioning, film sessions, playbook studying ... that all happens months and months before that first game and requires the dedication of many, not just a few.
Games and practices can be demanding and grueling, both physically and mentally. And little success happens unless each and every teammate on the field is dialed in and on the same page.
Football players must, as they always tell me, have each other's backs. They must trust each other unconditionally.
Of course, in real life, few people show this kind of unwavering commitment and dedication to anyone outside of their own family.
Hence, the emphasis on football brotherhoods.
At Lake Zurich, that brotherhood has been taken to a completely unique and different level this season.
The Bears, who are the No. 1 ranked team in the state of Illinois in Class 7A and are undefeated (7-0) headed into tonight's North Suburban Conference tilt against visiting Libertyville (7:30 p.m.), have a literal brotherhood going on in their program.
Get this: between the varsity, sophomore and freshmen football teams at Lake Zurich, there are 12 sets of brothers in the program.
Talk about an actual brotherhood.
"I've never had this many brothers in one program in one year," said first-year Lake Zurich head coach Luke Mertens, formerly the longtime head coach at Lakes. "It definitely speaks to the family atmosphere we have here. Parents are sending multiple boys through the program and it's great because it creates a nice connection between our older kids and younger kids."
Senior quarterback Evan Lewandowski doesn't have a brother who is a player in the program, but his older brother Aaron is on the coaching staff, so we are counting them as one of the 12 sets.
Meanwhile, Matthijs Enters is a senior on varsity and his brother Marek is a junior on varsity. This is the first time they have ever been on the same team for a full season.
There are three sets of twins in the program: juniors Jason and Justin Wollard, who are both on varsity, sophomores Nick and Joe Doolittle, who are both on the sophomore team, freshmen Sal and Joe Ventrone, who are both on the freshman team.
Trenton Burkley is a senior on varsity whose younger brother Conner is a sophomore on the sophomore team.
The rest of the sets of brothers consist of one varsity player and one freshman player: Lucas Dwyer (varsity) and Jack Dwyer, Jack Sanborn (varsity) and Bryan Sanborn, Bennett Amoroso (varsity) and Andrew Amoroso, Travis Katzenberger (varsity) and Kaleb Katzenberger, Nick Nastruz (varsity) and Alex Nastruz, Noah Janke (varsity) and Pryce Janke.
"I never realized until coach (Mertens) told me that we had so many brothers," said Matthijs Enters, who starts at tight end and also plays some outside linebacker "I feel like we were already a tight-knit group though. We're all best friends. We are like brothers."
Enters and his actual brother Marek are soaking in this football season.
They grew up playing youth football together for the Lake Zurich Flames, which is the case for a vast majority of the players on the current roster. But the Enters were always on different teams.
Until this season, the only time they had been together on the same field was during a playoff game last year. Marek was brought up to varsity for the playoffs and got in at the end of a game in which Lake Zurich was up by more than 40 points.
Matthijs, a starter who was about to be rotated out, asked the coaches if he could stay in for one more down so that he could be on the field at the same time with Marek.
"That was one of the best moments we have had in football together," said Marek, who is a back-up wide receiver and linebacker. He is also on the punt team. "It was my first varsity snap and we both went in as linebackers and I was right next to Matthijs.
"Now we're both on punt covereage and it's amazing that I get the chance to be on the field with him because he's my role model. He gives me something to strive for."
Matthijs, who seemed touched to hear that he was a role model for his younger brother, said that Marek had never told him that before.
"But it's really nice to hear," Matthijs said.
Then Matthijs added that Marek is also a role model for him because of the way Marek works. Matthijs loves the work ethic of his little brother.
"Marek works so hard and he pushes me to get better and to work harder and I think I do the same for him," Matthijs said. "I think we both push each other. We motivate each other."
The same is true of the Wollard brothers, Jason and Justin, who say that life as twins means automatically trying to keep up with each other.
"We try to win whatever we are doing," Jason said. "I think the competition with each other has made us better and made us work harder."
The Wollards are both still trying to prove themselves on varsity. They are backup receivers and linebackers and they rotate long-snapping responsibilities. They are so similar in their style and look that sometimes their teammates and their coaches aren't sure which one of the Wollards is in, espeically on the snaps.
The Wollards are identical twins who can only be told apart at practice by the color scheme of their accessories.
"I wear black gloves and black cleats and a black headband," Jason said. "And Justin wears all of that, but in white. That's the only way people can tell us apart."
Earlier this season, there was even a mix-up when Justin scored a touchdown on a 2-yard catch.
"They announced Jason's name instead of mine," Justin said with a slight laugh. "That actually made me kind of mad."
"I was fine with it," Jason laughed.
It was quickly water under the bridge.
Like the Enters brothers, the Wollard twins are having way too much fun soaking in their time together. They've always been on the same team growing up, and their seventh grade team with the Lake Zurich Flames won the Super Bowl.
But never have they been on a team quite this good, or this special, when the stakes have been so high.
"We have talked a lot about how much fun it is to do this together, to be on such a great high school team as brothers," Justin said. "This is something you dream about as a kid. It doesn't get much better than this."
Not for 12 sets of brothers, or for the brotherhood.
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