Football is a way of life for many suburban families, but in the town of Cary, loyalties run especially deep. Meet the coaches, players, parents and alumni who treasure those Friday night lights.
Drive through a suburban town on a Friday night in September or October, and stadium lights will be your guide. That’s where the glitz and glamour of high school football take center stage. That’s where two teams clash before prancing cheerleaders and a packed house as the scent of hot dogs and hamburgers waft through the crisp autumn air.
Friday night football is back.
Every fall, this scene plays out all over the northwest suburbs. Wherever you look, locals love their high school football.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Cary-Grove High School, in Cary. Located along the Fox River, this town of 18,271 people sits at U.S. Route 14 and the Metra’s Union Pacific/Northwest Line that runs locals to and from downtown Chicago. Cary is known for longtime manufacturers such as Coilcraft Inc. and Sage Products, along with popular annual events such as Cary Main Street Fest and Merry Cary Holiday Parade and Festival. But its favorite season is football season at Cary Grove High School. Opened in 1961, the school serves students in Cary, Fox River Grove, Oakwood Hills and parts of Barrington.
Local affection starts with the Cary Junior Trojan program – young players who aspire to suit up in high school.
Cary-Grove in the past two decades has become a powerhouse, with one state championship (2009), four state tournament appearances (‘04, ‘09, ‘12 and ‘14), a dozen Fox Valley Conference titles and 11 consecutive playoff appearances.
“People love to support a winner,” says Cary-Grove’s head coach, Brad Seaburg. “During the games, school spirit is on full display. The students and community rally around the team. They put all their emotions into it. I don’t think college or professional football has the same aura.”
Kevin O’Malley and his family moved to Cary in 2004, the same year the Trojans reached their first state title game. Since then, O’Malley has kept track of the team’s record: 90-9 during the past 11 regular seasons. “For a public school to have that kind of success is unbelievable,” he says. “The coaches, players and all those who support this team deserve the credit.”
In this town, fandom is a way of life.
“High school football is special,” says Tom Kierna, a Cary-Grove grad and former village president. “It brings the community together. There’s a pride that you have in your team that energizes the town. I can’t imagine not going to a high school game. It’s football in its purest form.”
Cary is, without question, a football town. You can see it at various times during the year, when banners hang from city streets and business marquees offer messages of support.
Sue Mago lived and breathed Cary-Grove football for nine years. Her four sons – Michael, Johnny, Rob and Sam – were members of the Trojan football team from 2004 to 2012. Three of them also played at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.
Mago saw firsthand the community support when Johnny played on the 2004 state runner-up team. “He was getting letters and cookies in the mail from people he didn’t even know,” she says. “They were thanking him for working hard and being such a good role model in the community. In Cary, there’s a small-town feel; football brings people together.”
Every Thursday night during the season, a group of mothers serve a team dinner inside the high school cafeteria. The tradition started in 2004 under former head coach Bruce Kay. About a dozen moms arrive early to set things up before the team practice ends at 5:30 p.m. Each week the menu varies: chicken, beef, pasta, as well as potatoes, salads, desserts, fruits and an assortment of beverages. More than 50 ravenous players, coaches and team managers join the feast.
“It’s not only a good meal, it’s a chance for the kids to wind down before the big game,” says Lori Ruhland, who’s had two sons in the football program.
Parents also take part in the Cary-Grove Football Association, an organization separate from the booster club that raises funds for the football program through an annual golf outing and a sale for reserved seating. Over the years, the group has purchased irrigation systems at the football stadium and practice field; funded construction of the Alumni Building, where the team gathers for meetings and film work; and bought bleachers for the Junior Trojan stadium, equipment for the weight room and jerseys for varsity games.
O’Malley is the president of the football association. His son, Patrick, played at Cary-Grove and his other son, Ryan, is currently on the freshman team. For 12 years, O’Malley has coached youth football. He can also be found helping around the stadium. Three days before this season’s opener, O’Malley painted reserved seats.
“I’m a big football fan, especially high school,” he says. “If I have to choose between a high school game on Friday night or a Bears game on Sunday, I’m picking the high school game every time.”
Kierna graduated from Cary-Grove in 1975. A sales rep for a national industrial company, he served on the village board for 17 years and spent four as village president. He bleeds Cary-Grove blue and white. Kierna, his brother Brian, and sons Dan and Mark, all donned the Trojan uniform. He’s also coached in the junior program.
In 2009, Kierna presided over a pep rally celebrating the football team and the girls’ volleyball team – both of which captured state championships that year. The two teams received a key to the city and served as grand marshals in the town’s holiday parade.
“The 2009 squad was a very special football team,” Kierna says. “The community was suffering from the recession, and the team brought everyone closer together. The games were an escape from the daily grind of foreclosures and layoffs. That team brought joy to the community.”
The Week Before
Game week begins on Sunday night when coaches gather at an assistant’s home to watch game film. Practice starts on Monday, the first of four straight days of three-hour rehearsals for the players. Practices under Seaburg and his coaching staff are extremely organized. Players start with stretching and move into position drills before going into offensive, defensive and special teams practices. There’s no standing around.
“We want to coach so quickly and efficiently that Friday nights might seem a little slow,” says Seaburg, a teacher and coach at Cary-Grove for 15 years who’s starting his fifth year as head coach.
The Trojans are coming off an impressive 13-1 season in 2014, when they lost a 31-28 heartbreaker to New Lenox’s Providence Catholic in the Class 7A championship game. Ironically, the Trojans beat Providence to win the title in 2009. “We were disappointed we lost, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort,” says Seaburg. “We gave it our best shot.”
Senior Kevin Hughes has been playing football since he was in kindergarten. Growing up, Hughes says, he was the kid in the stands, dreaming of one day wearing the Trojan uniform. “Little kids look up to us,” he says. “They see the hard work it takes to get to this level. They, too, want to play under the lights one day.”
JP Sullivan was the backup quarterback last year. Now a senior, it’s his turn to lead the team. “I learned a lot from watching last year,” he says. “I’m trying to carry that experience into this season. I want to be a leader. Our expectations are high.”
In his first two years, Tyler Pennington rushed for 2,800 yards and scored 42 touchdowns. Now a junior, Pennington is a team leader. He says last year’s success will have a positive effect heading into this season. “It was one of the best years I’ve ever had in football,” he says. “It stung to lose, but the next day we were back in the weight room, getting ready for this season.”
It’s not just the players who look forward to Friday nights. Eric Chandler, who graduated in 2010, was an MVP, all-conference fullback for the Trojans. Now he’s starting his first season as an English teacher and assistant football coach.
“This is a great place with great people,” he says. “The feeling people around here get for Friday night is contagious.”
Chandler was a pivotal part of the 2009 state championship team. “Looking back, winning the championship was great, but developing close friendships was just as important as getting the ring,” he says. “I want the same thing for these guys.”
Katelyn Friedline, a Cary-Grove senior and a former swimmer, is one of the team’s five student managers; she operates a camera during practice and games. Friedline played tackle football in the junior program, while her brother Jon was a member of the 2011 Trojans. “Being part of this football program is one of my favorite parts of the high school year,” she says. “I’m going to miss it when I graduate.”
After a grueling week of practice, it’s finally Friday night: the season opener against Crystal Lake’s Prairie Ridge. Expectations run high for both teams. The Wolves were co-champions of the conference division last year, and the Trojans are looking for a return trip downstate.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, the Trojans assemble. They start with a walkthrough and some light stretching in the school gym. Then, they meet in the Alumni Building next to the field. This building is sacred; it houses photos and statistics from past Cary-Grove teams in the Ring of Honor. Every time a player leaves the building, he taps a sign above the entrance that reads: “Today is the day to exercise your will.”
The crowd is fired up as a misting rain falls from the sky. The Super Fan student cheering section is loud and boisterous. Some students have spray-painted their bodies, while others are holding photos and signs of encouragement for their favorite players. The band, wearing new helmets with white plumes, is lined up and ready to take the field. The stands packed, fans from both teams are lined up along the fence surrounding Al Bohrer Field.
It feels like a playoff atmosphere. “Honestly, we’re acclimated to this type of environment,” says Seaburg. “We’ve played in many games that had a lot at stake.”
There are plenty of dignitaries in the crowd, including Gil Gulbrandson, a 1966 grad who played football at Cary-Grove and taught here for 12 years. Today, he owns a physical therapy center.
Gulbrandson is talking with Bruce Kay, who proceeded Seaburg as head coach and spent 33 years here – 22 as head coach and 20 as athletic director before retiring in 2011.
At halftime, Cary-Grove holds a 13-0 lead, but a Prairie Ridge touchdown in the third quarter draws the Wolves closer. The Trojans turn to their stifling defense to preserve the win. Just as Prairie Ridge is driving for the tying score, defensive lineman Nick Cruz falls on a fumble. Cary-Grove hangs on for a thrilling 21-14 win.
“I thought it was a good start for us,” says Pennington, the bruising fullback who led the team in rushing, with 171 yards on 40 carries and one touchdown. “We have so much to work on. But we’re young, so to get this win was outstanding.”
Following the game, the players jog to the fence to greet adoring fans. On the way to the Alumni Building, Seaburg, who looks more relieved than jubilant, walks hand-in-hand with his 6-year-old daughter, Sofia.
“I thought our kids competed well and played hard,” Seaburg tells a reporter. “Both offenses made mistakes and both defenses played well.”
Inside the building, Seaburg gathers his players for a pep talk.
“Any win in this conference is a tough win. Any win is a good win,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for improvement. We’ll get better every week. Great job tonight.”
The players will celebrate this victory tonight. On Saturday morning, they’ll meet up to watch film and lift weights. They know another taxing week of practice is looming before next week’s game against Lake Zurich.
“You have to be realistic; we’re dealing with 16- and 17-year-old kids,” says Seaburg. “They should celebrate and have fun. That’s what high school is all about. But they also have to be grounded. It’s one week in, and hopefully it’s a long season. After tonight, we get to work on our next opponent.”
The Friday night lights are just seven days away.