One of the benefits to Prospect grad Rick Richardson's road to Western Illinois was having former high school rival Mike Garoppolo of Rolling Meadows as a teammate and friend.
Photo provided by Rick Richardson
Rolling Meadows grad Mike Garoppolo makes a play earlier this season for Western Illinois against Valparaiso.
Photo provided by Rick Richarson
Mike Garoppolo and Rick Richardson are a little more reserved these days about their right to brag about one of the suburbs fiercest high school football rivalries.
Those rights went to Richardson this year after Prospect edged Rolling Meadows 18-13 a month ago.
"He (Garoppolo) found out before I did," Richardson said with a laugh of a game his alma mater had to win to make the playoffs. "When he told me what happened I couldn't believe it."
But there was no anger or nastiness to the news. That figures with the passage of five years since they went head-to-head in some of the most intense rivalry meetings.
They have continued to go head-to-head on a daily basis. The difference is it has been in practice for the same team with Garoppolo playing outside linebacker and Richardson playing fullback at Western Illinois.
And at 1 p.m. Saturday in Macomb, the old classmates at South Middle School in Arlington Heights will conclude three years as college teammates against North Dakota State, the fifth-ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
"After you get out of high school - it goes away," Garoppolo said. "We're on the same team so we've come together and put the rivalry behind us.
"It's kind of a joke now. It's all fun and games now."
Of course, it wasn't then when they were going up against each other Richardson on the defensive line and Garoppolo at outside linebacker and tight end with so much at stake.
Prospect was on its way to its third Class 7A state title in 2005 when it won a heated 10-7 regular-season finale for the Mid-Suburban East championship. The next year the Knights won a pair of meetings including a 7A quarterfinal game a week after Meadows pulled a memorable last-second upset of Libertyville.
"We respected each other as athletes in high school," said Richardson, who started for Prospect at defensive tackle in 2005 and moved to end in 2006 to go against Garoppolo. "When we came to Western, we were always friends off the field, but on the field we were two high school rivals who both wanted to beat the other one."
They initially went separate ways. Garoppolo, after an all-state senior year, credited his parents Denise and Tony and then-Meadows head coach Doug Millsaps for directing him to Western Illinois.
Richardson went to Harper College and redshirted his first year. He played fullback the following year for the NJCAA champions after a stunning comeback from a 32-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 39-38 bowl game victory.
Richardson liked Western Illinois for its law enforcement program and its use of a fullback in a pro-style offense. Brent Pearlman, then the head coach at Prospect, and Dragan Teonic, then Harper's head coach and now the head coach at Hersey, put in some good words about Richardson with Western's coaching staff.
Richardson and Garoppolo also worked out at the same gym during their breaks from school.
"It's crazy we ended up at the same spot but it's a great thing we did," said Garoppolo, who is next to Richardson in this year's Western Illinois team photo. "I would ask him what he was doing and he would tell me he was interested in Western.
"It's a great thing he came and committed to us because he's been a great addition."
Not that it was easy for Richardson. He went from a fourth-string walk-on to a part-time starter and regular contributor in each of his three seasons with the Leathernecks.
"I knew the road ahead of me," said Richardson, who earned a full scholarship this year. "I was ready to work, I knew what I was capable of and kept at it."
Garoppolo didn't play his first two years but got on the field in 2009 and played 10 games. He missed six games last year with a torn knee ligament but was able to return for both of Western's playoff games.
There haven't been any health issues for Garoppolo as he is fourth on the team in tackles and tied for the lead in sacks with three.
The downside is a 2-8 record going into Saturday's finale. The upside is having Richardson as a teammate and friend.
"I didn't have too many guys here I could really relate to," Garoppolo said. "When Rick came, we could relate to each other and talk about sports and things back home."
Richardson will graduate next month and plans to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Ron, a retired Mount Prospect police officer. Garoppolo wants to become a teacher and football coach and will be student-teaching at Taft High School on Chicago's Northwest Side before graduating in May.
But this may not be the end of their run together on the football field. Richardson will be playing on a flag football team with former Prospect players and he has recruited Garoppolo to join them.
"It shows you can have friends (from the rivalry)," Richardson said.