After eighteen meets during the regular season in 1974, it was time to run in Districts, the first toward going downstate. In my case, that race would bring me full circle to the Kaneland High School cross country course at Elburn Forest Preserve.
I knew the course well after four years of racing out there for Kaneland and St. Charles. It felt like my home course even though I was two years removed from running for the host school. The start faced south toward the railroad tracks, and getting good position at the first turn toward the woods meant going out strong.
My record of the race that day, in which I finished fourth behind Ken Englert of Elgin, Rick Hodapp of Naperville Central and Jeff McCoy of Lake Park, is captured in both “official” and “unofficial” photos. A St. Charles photographer took great photos during the race. My father Stew also moved around the course capturing the event on his trusty Polaroid.
The problem with Polaroids is that they were susceptible to double imagery on occasion. This photo shows a Central runner, I think it was Randy Russell, along with my teammate Paul Morlock, #379. The runners in the middle are Jeff McCoy and John Rath.
After taking the hill at Elburn, the two two top guys Ken Englert and Rick Hodapp were battling together at the 1.5 mark.
You can see that Englert and Hodapp were flying down that straight for the second loop on the course. These two guys had many great races against each other, having just fought it out at the Upstate Eight Conference meet the week before. But Englert pulled away in the middle mile, as evidenced by the picture of him taking the lead along the east woods. This section of preserve is now covered over with dense undergrowth.
I was not far behind these two guys fighting it out for one of the coveted top five spots that would move on to Sectionals.
At some point, Jeff McCoy slipped past me into third. I held fourth through the last mile and had to sprint like made to keep John Rath at bay in the last 100 meters. You can see in my face how much it hurt those last few yards. But I beat Rath, a keen rival all season. He’d go on to beat me by 30 seconds at Sectionals the following week. The guy did know how to rise to an occasion.
My father took photos of the top finishers receiving their awards.
It was a nice accomplishment to advance out of Districts against that level of competition. The Sectional meet was held a week later. I arrived nervous and a bit overwhelmed at facing the level of competition in the sectional featuring York High School, the perennial state championship team famous for The Long Green Line. To make matters worse for my anxious state of mind, my starting stall was right next to the York team. Despite my general love of competition, I was intimidated. The guy next to me was also Dave Finnestad, a former rival from the Little Seven Conference and a rising star in Illinois running. He’d finish a few seconds behind me that day. Neither of us ran up to full potential.
My nerves got the best of me. The gun went off and I developed a side stitch in the first mile. Anxiety sometimes caught up to me in high-level competition. I willed myself to a 15:51 three-mile and finished in the Top 25. But it was disappointing. That was not good enough to advance in a sectional where the top individuals compete for select spots outside the team competition. The battle between Rick Hodapp and Ken Englert flipped again as Rick outran Ken by four seconds at Sectionals. The York sectional was one of the toughest in the state, with several Chicago-area sectionals typically dominating the top ten positions in state cross country. The Sectional Wall had held against me.
My father captured a photo of York’s Ron Craker leading the race.
The season’s end came with a combination of disappointment and relief. I definitely wanted to go downstate, but the pressures of trying to win against the top guys from every team each week added up to a state of mental fatigue by that first week of November. My mother’s illness scared me that fall, and the rapid succession of meets combined with schoolwork and social life made me tired in the head. Then my girlfriend decided to break up with me. She’d fallen for some surly dude that I instantly hated because he looked like a no-good character. So I was depressed.
I weakly went out for basketball and learned quickly that I was not going to play that year. I felt anger and relief at that too.
That meant there was free time after school. A band of us cross country guys started playing pickup football on the grassy area where our home course chute was typically placed. We were joined by a girl or two, including a super-cute cross country cheerleader named Mary Ellen Pooley, who was also a good athlete. She made touch football a joyous bit of laughter and beauty. After four solid years of sports dedication in cross country, basketball, and track, it felt good to let down for a bit and just be a high school kid.
One of our Campus Life counselors heard about our football games and showed up to ask if we’d like to join him in playing in a flag football tournament in Wheaton. We put together a bunch of guys and showed up for the tourney not knowing what to expect. I played quarterback because I had a great arm and accuracy. My cross country teammate Rob Walker played running back and our big Campus Life counselor Gary provided the bulk of the blocking, pun intended. He’d played in high school and was tough to get around. It was fun competition.
The tourney lasted all day.We kept winning games. The longer we played, the more that our cross country conditioning came into play. I’d done a fair amount of scoring, and during the final game the score was close and I wanted the ball. But my best friend Rob wanted the ball even more. “Cuddy,” he told me. Trust me. I can run it in…” Rob said. He was actually the faster runner and I did trust him. He would have been a great soccer player if we’d had the sport in the day. I handed the ball off and he faked an inside run, the tore down the sideline for a winning touchdown. I can still see that image of him with legs flying and guys diving after him. What a run!
After the tournament, tired as we were, we all went to the movies to watch the flick The Longest Yard. I remember there were some disgustingly sweet donuts involved in our celebration, and fizzy Cokes. Through all my years of organized sports and official teams, there was still something quite satisfying about that ad hoc flag football victory. We finished the day in fading light and light rain that November afternoon. We were soaked through with mud and thoroughly tired and satisfied. That tournament experience put a cap on my freshman fantasies of going out for football years before at Kaneland High School.
I kind of laughed at the thought that all that cross country running had gone to good use in a football game.