Vikings' success tinged with hugs, tears and plenty of emotion
Sean Grady, a senior on the Geneva football team, admitted he didn't know Dustin Villareal all that well.
Some of Grady's teammates, however, considered Villareal - a former Viking who passed away when he was 15 years old - one of their best friends.
"To be honest, I was kind of friends with (Dustin), had one class with him and wasn't all that close to him," Grady said. "(But) I've heard so many great stories about him. Everything I heard (suggested) he was a great kid. If he's anything like his dad and mom, he was a great kid.
"We've all embraced the family. This is a special time for them as much as it is for us."
This "special time" Grady spoke about was Geneva heading into the Class 7A state title game in Champaign. Enjoying an undefeated season, the Vikings will try to become state champions over East St. Louis on Saturday on the campus of the University of Illinois.
This season, this experience and (hopefully for the Vikings) a state title is all for Villareal, who would have been a senior on the team this year. The season was also dedicated to assistant coach Marc Fagot, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer last April.
"We decided last year we wanted to win for Dustin, and now there's two people (to win for) with Coach Fagot," senior Bryce Biel said after he and the Vikings beat Crystal Lake South 25-21 in the game that advanced them to state. "I've never felt this kind of feeling in my whole life."
In May 2006 while hanging out with friends, Villareal collapsed and died of a heart ailment. He was a starting defensive end on the freshman football team. He was survived by his father, Dave, brother Dave Jr. and mother, Jena.
After the win over the Gators, David Sr., wearing his Big Papa 66 sweatshirt, was constantly giving and receiving hugs from players. With tears in his eyes, he talked about how much the Vikings' ticket to state meant to him.
"From Day One, when Dustin passed away, these guys and the coaches came to my house and were there for us," he said. "They brought his uniform, which we buried him in ... I'm just really happy for these kids. They promised me at the visitation they were going to win (state) for Dustin. It was Dustin's goal to help this team win a state championship."
Senior Trey Hemming had been friends with Dustin since second grade. He described him as a fun kid whose passion was football.
"It's hard living without him, but I know he is up there looking down on us," Hemming said. "I miss him with all my heart. He provides support. I keep him by my heart. I play football with his emotions."
The Vikings made sure "Big Papa" wasn't left out of any of their success. They visited the house all the time and made sure they didn't forget him and Dustin's memory.
"He's like a second father to me," Hemming said. "It helps me remember who (Dustin) was. His family is great. I love them. Staying close to the family has helped me."
"Mr. V is a great guy," added senior Cory Hofstetter. "He'd do anything for us, just like any of us would do anything for each other. He's always going to be there for us."
"If it wasn't for them, I don't know how we'd go on," Villareal said. "It's just amazing."
What's amazing is all the emotions and reasons these Vikings had to play through this season. A death of a former teammate and a current coach battling for his life? It's a lot for teenagers to go through in addition to remembering all the plays on the field and schoolwork.
"There's so much they've been fighting for, but they want to win for the community and everyone else," Dave Villareal said.