Remembering Driscoll's record title run, 10 years later

 
 
Updated 8/23/2018 8:56 AM

Somewhere, right now, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blares out of a set of speakers. Somewhere, Axl Rose shrieks, "Welcome to the Jungle."

Those pump-up anthems no longer rattle ear drums and opponents at the Addison plot once known as Robert A. Barth Field, where the late, great Driscoll Catholic Highlanders perfected a championship run unique in Illinois high school football history.

 

It's been 10 years since Driscoll's final football season in 2008. Cue the bagpipes.

"It leaves a little bit of an empty feeling," said Tim Racki, a 1986 Driscoll graduate who as a freshman arrived "kicking and screaming," disappointed not to join his buddies at Elgin.

Hired as Driscoll's 29-year-old coach in 1998, he installed even younger former Highlanders star Mike Burzawa as his offensive coordinator. Their self-imposed mandate was to restore the Highlanders to their former glory, when with "Buzz" in the backfield and Driscoll legends like coach Gene Nudo and offensive genius Mike Loconsole calling the shots the Highlanders won the 1991 Class 3A title.

Under Racki and then Burzawa -- now leading the football programs at Nazareth and Evanston, respectively -- the young brain trust exceeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The jewel of Driscoll's overall playoff record of 56-10, which included an 8-0 mark in title games, was its seven straight state championships from 2001-07. For a program routinely motivated by adversity, that final crown came a little more than two weeks after Loconsole's untimely death at age 53 from pneumonia, a complication of lymphoma.

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Racki directed the first four championships, Burzawa the next three. They served as best man at each other's weddings.

"We are still best friends to this day," said Racki, who has added two more titles at Nazareth. "We've never lost that bond; in fact it's gotten stronger."

Driscoll's last football game, on Nov. 15, 2008, was a 24-17 loss to Aurora Christian in the Class 4A quarterfinals. Coached by Driscoll graduate Brandon New -- who served as current Fenwick coach Nudo's defensive coordinator in 2016 -- a trademark second-half rally from a 21-point deficit fell short, and the Highlanders' 37-game playoff winning streak ended.

On April 2, 2009, the Christian Brothers of the Midwest announced the 43-year-old school would be closing due to low enrollment and financial difficulties. The school was leveled in 2010.

"I traveled with our team to a lot of football, baseball and basketball games. We were always complimented on how well-behaved our kids were," said Bob Crowe, who now gets his football fix at IC Catholic Prep, Montini, Nazareth and Fenwick.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There from the start as a statistician and general aide for several Driscoll athletic programs and owning 11 state championship rings for football and baseball, the Glendale Heights resident keeps in touch with folks like former basketball coaches Vince Doran and Nick Latorre, baseball coach Jeff Sefcik and football assistant Tony Navigato, now offensive coordinator for IC Catholic.

According to National Federation of State High School Associations records for 11-man football, Driscoll stands among 11 schools nationally (one did it twice) to have won at least seven consecutive state titles.

"Watching them, they were head and shoulders just so much better than the people they lined up against," said Dave Jelonek, the 1999 Driscoll graduate whose stentorian voice graced the microphone for varsity football from 2003-08.

"I think it was the combination of the kids willing to take direction from the coaching staff and execute the plan," Jelonek said. "I think it was very much like what Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) does at Northwestern. He doesn't have the top recruiting classes but always seems to be competitive in the Big Ten."

Married with a 2-year-old son and living in Schaumburg, the public accountant's public announcing now consists of presenting auditing reports and reading Mass at Queen of the Rosary in Elk Grove Village. Dave Virgilio, the audio man who unleashed the AC/DC and Guns N' Roses (and Rush's "Tom Sawyer" for at least one appreciative writer), was Jelonek's best man at his wedding.

"I tried to use the enthusiasm of my voice to kind of play up that what the people who came that day were witnessing was an important event," said Jelonek, rattling off the names of Kyle Jenkins, David Schwabe, John Tranchitella and Greg Turner among his favorite players.

Those Saturday games under a blazing sun, as team fathers cooked bratwurst and burgers, and the boys -- fed on campus hours earlier by a crew of "Breakfast Moms" -- marched solemnly onto the field from beneath the south upright, led by bagpipers and locked arm-in-arm in morale-crushing columns, were indeed important events for generations of backers who considered each other family.

Players. Students. Parents. Alumni. Black and Gold.

"It was very close," said Driscoll dad George Gaspari. "Every playoff (campaign) obviously new parents would come on in, and it didn't take long for them to meld in, and it was seamless."

Gaspari and his wife, Kerri, sent three children to the Addison school, transferred a fourth to Nazareth after Driscoll closed in 2009, and sent their youngest to IC Catholic. Kerri Gaspari got recruited by Driscoll's Breakfast Moms and later, upon Racki's request, started a similar program at Nazareth.

George Gaspari lives "about a 9-iron" from the Lombard Road location, and he drives by the spot on the way to work. Barth Field is now Blazer Park, utilized by Addison Trail High School mainly for boys soccer and by youth football teams. It's still got Driscoll's old concession stand and a storage shed, now painted blue.

Also there are two lonely looking uprights kicker Rick Albreski split for many of his 64 straight extra points during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, his a former state-record 44 field goals.

"It still kind of breaks my heart," George Gaspari said.

David Schwabe's emotional moment was putting on the pads one last time before 14-0 Driscoll's 48-24 win over Bloomington Central Catholic in the 2007 Class 4A championship. Schwabe ran for 238 yards with a 94-yard touchdown run and took back an interception 45 yards for another score. His younger brother, Steve, would be Driscoll's last quarterback.

Now 28, David Schwabe is a commercial lender who lives in Roselle with his wife and high school sweetheart, the former Geena Zaval. He plays men's flag football with his brother and Highlanders teammates including Joe Calabrese, Joe Conti, John Lara, Andrew O'Reilly and John Schiller.

"You could talk to anybody you want, you're never going to get that kind of feeling playing anything else," David Schwabe said. "How everybody cared about each other. You'd literally do anything for the guy next to you. I'd still do anything for those guys.

"Driscoll football taught me what kind of sacrifices were needed for sustained success. Consistently winning is not easy but as young men we were able to learn this. Ten years later you gain an appreciation for that," he said.

Greater distance provides deeper perspective. David and Geena Schwabe have yet to have children. Tim and Marsha Racki do -- Jake, a sophomore at Nazareth, and Nick, a fifth-grader at Benjamin Middle School in West Chicago, near their home in Carol Stream.

"I still remember winning that state title in 2001, it was the best feeling in the world," Tim Racki said. "That was before I had kids. Then when I had kids, that was the best feeling in the world."

He's obviously still highly competitive, but like all veteran coaches what he's come to savor most are relationships -- those made at Driscoll and those yet to be made.

"It's great to collect titles," Racki said, "but those rings collect dust. It's not the pinnacle."

doberhelman@dailyherald.com

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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