Sugar maple seeds flutter to the ground like mini helicopters and leaves tinged in red signal fall and football season. As soon as my hand grew big enough to grasp the pigskin, my dad taught me to throw and catch a perfect spiral. On cool autumn evenings, we ran passing patterns – the down and out, button hook and v-slant – under the waning street light until mom called for dinner.
Back in the late 60s, I was probably the only girl in town that knew that a Hail Mary had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. The daughter of a Sterling High School football coach and the granddaughter of a former Northern Illinois University and Eureka College football coach, no one told me girls couldn’t love football. Though it was almost 2 more decades before girls would be allowed to participate on America’s ball fields, nobody in my family discouraged me from playing a game designed to build the character of men.
Only a half a century later did I realized how unique my upbringing and how privileged I was to grow up in a coach’s family in a community that valued sports.
My alma mater Sterling High School stadium sparkles in the night like a major university field. Dating back to the 40s, the football program brought pride to the community. My dad, a DeKalb High School Barb, remembers the challenge of playing against Sterling when DuWayne Dietz starred as a running back.
“Our game plan was simple – tackle Dietz!” my dad recounted, “Only problem, we had to catch him first. We chased him up and down the field all night.”
Last year, at the recently renovated stadium, the team made it to the semi-finals of a state championship and this season remain undefeated.
I grew up admiring the Sterling warriors, memorizing plays and tracking yardage gained. For me the only thrill greater than Friday night lights of American high school football was watching my grandpa’s college team play on Saturdays. As children, we cherished each excursion to Eureka, Illinois to spend time with our grandparents.
Sitting on hard bleachers, my sisters and I cheered “Go Red Devils,” and chuckled in amusement that a Christian college team could carry such a dubious nickname. But we knew the history behind it and felt proud; my grandma gave them that name when she started the pep club back in the 1930s.
Several Sterling High School athletes would go on to shine at Eureka College. In fact while I was playing basketball for Illinois State University, two of my best high school buddies – Mike Wietlispach and Chris Baldwin – wore the maroon and gold onto McKinzie Field.
Team loyalties transcend from generation to generation. I loved the Sterling Golden Warriors, the Eureka Red Devils and the Greenbay Packers long before the Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers era because Greenbay was my grandpa’s favorite team.
In early adulthood, I moved to Europe in pursuit of my own passion to play professional basketball. I have remained in the land of soccer ever since. Though I would never see another football game live, the love remains.
When my children were young, my dad gave them a football. As soon as their fingers were big enough to spread across the white laces, I taught them to throw and run those passing patterns.
I still dream of attending an SHS football game and heading back down to McKinzie Field for a Red Devils’ game. But for now that goal remains on my bucket list because I am still coaching in Switzerland.
In the meantime, if I close my eyes I can hear my ancestors’ voices echoing across the gridiron. Memories of family, pep talks of inspiration and love of football are imprinted in my soul forever.