Wauconda will play -- to honor coach Ryback

Updated 9/20/2017 10:18 PM
  • Coach Dave Mills, center, works with his players during Wednesday's practice as Wauconda's football family sticks together through trying times.

      Coach Dave Mills, center, works with his players during Wednesday's practice as Wauconda's football family sticks together through trying times. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The Wauconda football team practices Wednesday on the turf.

      The Wauconda football team practices Wednesday on the turf. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Wauconda football players practice Wednesday on the turf.

      Wauconda football players practice Wednesday on the turf. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Wauconda's decision to play a football game this Friday night, its first since outside linebackers coach Joe Ryback died unexpectedly, was easy. It wasn't "rocket surgery" anyway, as Ryback might have joked.

So after Wauconda's players and coaches attend Ryback's wake Friday afternoon, they will travel to North Chicago and play. Bulldogs head coach Dave Mills and his players know it's what Ryback would want.

"As difficult as Friday is going to be," Mills said, "if we don't do it, Coach Ryback is going to be kicking our backsides."

"We all talked about it as a team," senior middle linebacker/kicker Oscar Acosta said. "We felt going to the wake and paying our respects and then going to the game would bring us more fire for the game. I think Friday will be tough, but it's going to be good too."

Joe Ryback was just 33, a former star athlete at Palatine, an assistant baseball coach at St. Viator, a middle-school teacher, husband to Christina and "proud father of two amazing boys," Logan and Reid, his Twitter account says. His death has jolted multiple schools and tight-knit communities. But as people who loved him grieve, they know life goes on.

Wauconda's football players want to honor their former coach as best as they can. They want to cry, they want to laugh, and they never want to forget how he impacted their lives.

"He was tough, and funny," senior tight end/defensive end Matthew Nolan said. "He would always tell you how it is."

"He was very straight forward," Acosta added. "He was wise."

Joe Ryback knew how to reach kids, whether it required making them laugh or kicking them in the shorts.

"When I played for him (freshman year), on defense, whenever we'd mess up, he'd say, 'Calm down. It's not rocket surgery,' " tight end/defensive end Andrew Nolan said with a laugh.

Ryback was no dummy. He purposely mixed metaphors to get a reaction from his players, and they responded. Senior offensive lineman Tristan Kraft has a favorite Ryback quote too.

"He always said, 'You got to bring your hips to the party,' -- when you tackle, when you block," said Kraft, smiling.

With a big beard and equally large personality, Joe Ryback was hip. He was a cool dude who could snatch your attention.

"He'd always want us to focus at practice, but at the same time he'd crack a joke," Andrew Nolan said. "He was someone who could help put us on track when needed and also lighten up the mood when we needed to have a little more fun."

Wauconda's football team is struggling. The Bulldogs are an uncharacteristic 0-4, and if they lose to 3-1 North Chicago, their hopes of earning a third-straight playoff berth will be officially dashed. The Bulldogs are also hurting like they never have before.

Ryback was coaching from Lakes' press box last Friday night, as Wauconda dropped a 38-10 decision. The next day, the Bulldogs were learning that Ryback died early Saturday morning. Wauconda called a meeting for players and parents early that evening at the high school.

As Mills told them the news, counselors were on hand to help those who needed support.

"Everybody knew it was going to be bad news, but everybody showed up," Mills said. "It was to be around each other, to hear it face to face. I think that's the one thing Coach Ryback would have always wanted us to do -- face things up, don't run from it."

The head coach couldn't have been prouder of his program, his school district.

"It was a sight to see when all of these kids showed up," Mills said.

On Monday, former Wauconda players Kevin Malisheski, Grant Rodgers, Connor Mitchell and Tyler Stankiewicz all stopped by practice. Other ex-Bulldogs texted and called to offer their help and support. A former Wauconda coach volunteered to coach.

"The weekend was tough, but it was nice getting back to school and seeing everyone," Matthew Nolan said. "We've done a good job of sticking together and talking about it, being open about how we feel and being willing to support each other. Not just the football players, but everyone around the school."

Eventually, Mills and his team captains -- Acosta, Kraft and the Nolan twins -- talked about Friday's game. Should they should move it, postpone it?

"Their input has been great," Mills said of his captains, "and needed."

The players knew what to do. They voted to play football. They will bring their hips to the party, no doubt.

"Honestly, we've had a little bit more fire at practice," Kraft said. "It's different, and it's quiet. But something is giving us a little kick."

"It's really helped us come together as a program and as a school," Andrew Nolan said. "In times like this, it's always good to know, especially on the football team, that you can trust everyone. We're a family."

Families stick together, through the toughest times.

"A lot of our guys have been doing what Coach Ryback would have wanted, and that's not letting anything get between them and the game of football," Kraft said. "We're all here because we love it, and that's why he was here."

Somewhere, Joe Ryback is stroking his beard ... and wearing a proud smile.


•Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64

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