Spritually uplifting season for Warren star Singleton
On a wicked-weather night for football, under the bright lights of Northern Illinois University's Huskie Stadium, Willis Singleton looked through the face mask of his Warren helmet. Unbothered by the sweeping rain, frigid wind and darkness, he saw sunshine.
He saw hope.
He saw the beginning, not the end, which would come two hours later after a 12-0 loss to Lincoln-Way East.
He saw tomorrow's Willis Singletons, Juan De La Cruzes, Seamus Mellicans, Christian Phillipes, Derrick McLaughlins, Josh Turners, Malachi McNeals, Jaiden Lowerys.
It was the first time the Warren Township community saw its high school football team take the field for a state championship game.
"When we entered the NIU stadium, there were some younger, little, youth football players at the edge of the stands," says Singleton, Warren's all-state defensive tackle. "They were yelling my name, Juan's name. They had their little jerseys on. For those little guys to experience that and say, 'I want to be there one day,' for us to be able to give them that hunger and that vision to finish ... I have a feeling this was the first of many (state appearances)."
Led by an historically good defense, Warren put together the best season in its history. The big man in the middle led the way physically, spiritually and emotionally. A three-year varsity starter on the defensive line, the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Singleton is the 2019 Daily Herald Lake County All-Area Football Team Captain.
"He's extremely strong, and he's extremely talented, but more than anything he's just a really well-raised kid," says coach Bryan McNulty, whose Blue Devils went 13-1, advancing past the state quarterfinals for the first time.
"Very humble, a team leader, all the kids like him," McNulty adds of Singleton, an Iowa State University commit who led the Blue Devils in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (24), and was named IHSFCA all-state (Class 8A). "You won't find anybody around school say anything bad about him. He's the most dominant defensive player I've ever coached."
He might be the most gentle, too -- off the field. The only child of Willis, a pastor at Greater Horizon Baptist Church in Waukegan, and Donna, a two-time breast cancer survivor, Singleton, whose friends and family know him as "J.R." so as not to confuse him with his father, isn't as ferocious as he looks.
Junior Tommy Matheson learned that about Singleton and his varsity teammates last year.
"On sophomore, going against them in scout team, I was really intimidated by them and the Class of 2019," says Matheson, a 6-4, 265-pound lineman who had a Blue Devils-best 10 tackles in last Saturday night's state title game. "They scared me. J.R. is a pretty scary dude."
Then Matheson got to know him.
"People tell me, 'You got to remember, some people aren't expecting you to be that nice just because of your stature and how big you are,' " Singleton says. "Sometimes I forget all about it."
Few will forget how dominant Warren's defense was in 2019. The Blue Devils allowed just 52 points in 14 games, posted 6 shutouts and allowed an average of 115 yards per game (38.5 rushing). Lincoln-Way East was the first opponent to score double-digit points on them.
"What stands out to me the most is how strong we were at each position," Singleton says. "You get scouting reports and the coach tells you, 'OK, we're going to target this hole, this gap, this player.' But on our team, every player knew his job and did it so well. There really was no weakness in our defense. That was the thing that I was most proud of. It just made my job easier, as well."
At school Monday, two days after the state championship game, Singleton walked into his American Issues class. Everyone clapped, staggering a big man like no offensive lineman could.
"It was euphoric. It was all love," Singleton says. "I wasn't expecting that."