Wauconda's teal socks have a meaning beyond winning
The teal socks could be here to stay.
"If we keep winning, who knows how long we might wear them," Wauconda football coach Dave Mills said with a chuckle.
The Bulldogs, who are 2-1 heading into Friday night's Northern Lake County Conference battle with undefeated Antioch, got their second straight 35-7 win last week while wearing teal socks against Grayslake Central. They broke out the special socks for September to help draw attention to National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Wauconda's school colors are purple and gold but the football team got permission to wear socks that are a bright teal (the primary color for Suicide Awareness, along with purple) for at least the entire month of September.
Suicide Prevention Awareness is a cause that is near and dear to the hearts of the Bulldogs.
They lost assistant coach Joe Ryback this very weekend in September just one year ago to suicide. Ryback was only 33 years old and left behind two young sons, as well as many students and athletes who were influenced by his teaching and coaching.
"That was such a tough time," Wauconda senior middle linebacker Doug Antonucci said of Ryback's death, which came just a day after one of the Bulldogs' games. "It was an eye-opener for our entire team. It's kind of a tough topic, kind of a controversial topic with some people. A lot of people don't like to talk about it. They see it as a negative.
"We wanted to find a way to turn it into a positive."
So the Bulldogs decided not just to wear their support of Suicide Prevention Awareness (via the socks), they also decided to live it. Each and every day.
At the beginning of the season, each Wauconda football player set a goal to say 'Hi' to at least one new person at school a day, for five 'Hellos' per week.
The Bulldogs will say 'Hi' to anyone and everyone, but are specifically looking for people who could use a warm, kind greeting.
"You would never believe how big of an impact you have just by saying 'Hi' to someone," Antonucci said. "If someone has their head down in the halls, if someone looks upset, you never know what that person might be going through. Even people who don't (look upset) would probably like for someone to say 'Hi' to them. You never know who could be down.
"When you say 'Hi' to someone, you are telling that person that people are paying attention to them, that they are wanted. Our goal is to let kids know that Wauconda is a place where you can talk about (tough topics) and everyone is friends. We are all Bulldogs and we run as a pack and we stick together."
Some students are caught off guard, albeit pleasantly, when a football player reaches out to them. Especially those students who don't typically hang with athletes.
"Last Friday, I was wearing my jersey to school (on game day) and I saw this little freshman kid walking around looking completely lost," Antonucci said. "I walked up to him and was like, 'What's up buddy? What are you looking for?' He just stood there staring at me in shock. I think he was surprised that I was talking to him. He told me he couldn't find his science class, so I helped him find the room and now when we see each other in the halls, we do a fist bump.
"I think what we're doing with saying 'Hi' to people is just awesome. It makes you feel good."
Winning is making the Bulldogs feel good, too.
After a rough start to the season with a 41-7 Week 1 loss to Richmond-Burton, Wauconda has rebounded nicely with two straight decisive wins over Riverside-Brookfield and Grayslake Central.
The win over Riverside-Brookfield was Wauconda's first in the four-year series. It also made Mills the winningest coach in program history.
Knowing firsthand how fleeting life can be, Mills is making sure to enjoy that moment and every moment along the way. And his goal is to make sure his players do too.
"Suicide is such a heavy thing, and what happened last year really hit home with us. It had such a profound effect on us, to the point where it was hard to come to football practice some days," Mills said. "We just decided as a staff in the offseason that we really needed to lighten things up a bit this year, to bring fun back to football, to make sure the kids are enjoying themselves. Sometimes you're so busy trying to win games, or qualify for the playoffs, or deal with the day-to-day that you forget about that.
"We wanted to make football fun again."
The winning is fun, of course, but the coaches have made sure to make the everyday tasks fun, too.
The Bulldogs do cool competitions at practice, like tug-of-wars and moving heavy stacks with anything but their hands, and carrying teammates across the field on their shoulders.
The team also did a lock-in and some of the players went with the coaches recently to a Northern Illinois football game. On bus rides to away games, they all jam out to the same music on the main speaker so that they can build up some team spirit and swagger.
"Just things to encourage camaraderie and to build relationships," Mills said. "We want our kids to have a fun, positive experience. And we want them to help others do the same at school."
So far, so good.
Mills says that he's been getting emails from other teachers around school applauding how friendly the football players are.
"I tell the kids that people know who they are around school," Mills said. "I say, 'If you show other kids how to do things and how to treat people, they will follow you.'"
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw