Smile Politely

Unity is what we need in our lives

Matt Campbell contributed to this article.

From Champaign we aimed South, blasting through the plague of gnats to the sleepy bedroom community of Tolono. 

(I’m relieved someone is finally covering this disaster, what with ridiculous numbers of tiny bugs swarming all over town. It’s reaching Biblical nightmare proportions. Hand of God? Maybe. Large-scale human experimentation with the land? You betcha.)

Take heed, dear reader. Just outside of town is a little football paradise, where the reverberations of Jim Sheppard’s honeyed baritone bounce off the tract house developments across the corn rows from Hicks Field.  To University of Illinois football observers, “FIRST & TEN FOR THE ILLINI!!!” was a familiar refrain throughout those recent autumns of discontent at Memorial Stadium. After all, longtime PA-man Sheppard had to bellow something into the cement and steel to generate a modicum of excitement during Tepper-to-Turner and, several years later, Turner-to-Zook. That the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics dumped Sheppard two years ago is a shame. But here, in Tolono, he was not unceremoniously pushed out of a position held for most a lifetime in order to get a younger, hipper, whinier dude from Mix Nine-Ty-Fooore Point Fiiiiiive! for basketball and relatively-better choice Ken Johnson (may he have full and speedy recovery) for football. Here, he’s welcomed and revered. That’s right, folks: it’s “FIRST & TEN FOR THE ROCKETS!!!”

The atmosphere, however, is a bit different than what Sheppard experienced for the vast majority of his 22 years at Illinois. For one thing, the folks of Tolono and surrounding burgs regularly swarm Hicks Field on Friday nights. For another, they are treated to superb football.

The architects of this school system had a plan, a vision of greatness achieved only through cooperation. You see, Unity High School is a conglomeration of the teenage progeny of those residing in the towns of Philo, Sidney, Pesotum, Tolono, Sadorus, and the surrounding area. A combination that has somehow managed to skirt the mandates of the Taft-Hartley Act. These are people who realize the power of union organization when it comes to sports and the education of their young, if not the production of automobiles and fitting of pipes. After all, some mechanism has to be employed to level the playing field with the owners of the means of production reified in Champaign, Urbana, and the Tanger Outlet Mall of Tuscola. For Unity football, it’s been a brilliant strategy.

At Unity, the movement of the chains has for the last decade been strikingly routine: the Rockets have made five IHSA semifinal appearances since 1999, narrowly missing state titles twice along the way, and have won 80% of their games during Scott Hamilton’s 15 years as head coach. Expectations were once again high heading into 2009, with preseason pollsters recognizing Unity as the fourth-best Class 3A team in Illinois. The Rockets haven’t disappointed. Three quick wins got the campaign rolling and set the stage for the finale of Unity’s pre-conference schedule—a Homecoming showdown with the highly-rated Tuscola Bargain Hucksters, whose only defeat of this young season came by a single tally at mighty Decatur St. Teresa.

It’s not hard to find the stadium. Heading south on Route 45, we passed Philo Road and then looked for the brightest lights in a ten-mile radius. SUVs and half-tons lined the perimeter of the playing field, ensuring that nobody missed a snap and that some postgame off-roading was likely in the works. Directly behind a towering set of bleachers, all was chaos; hundreds of children scurried about, tossing footballs here and there and piledriving one another into the turf. Soccer moms and dads in two separate concession facilities doled out the comfort food. A class ring salesman offered bejeweled memories from a card table. Pom-pom girls eagerly awaited the Homecoming Dance, to be held immediately after the game.

And what between the sidelines, you ask?

Stout defensive play had been the cornerstone of the Mallsters’ early-season success, and for the most part, it held up in Tolono. Unity could manage only 194 yards and 11 “FIRST & TEN!!!”s all evening, but it was the home team’s own defense that proved to be the difference in this game. Sloppy ball-handling and shaky quarterbacking in the face of withering Rockets pressure led to five of Tuscola’s six second-half possessions ending in turnovers, all but sealing the visitors’ fate. Still, they had their chances. The lone mistake-free drive measured 99 yards and pulled Tuscola to within 14-13 at 6:41 in the fourth period, but on the ensuing extra-point attempt the Discounters erred again. A procedure penalty moved the PAT placement back five yards, and the resulting kick sailed inches wide. Though Tuscola would get the ball once more, the third interception by Rockets’ DB Seth Gooch killed the last drive for the Purveyors of Last Season’s Merchandise. Gooch’s 38-yard return set up a Rockets touchdown and two-point conversion in the final seconds to seal the game.

By the way, even halftime was absolutely killer. From his demeanor and carriage, the Unity band leader is apparently practicing for his next gig in the mountains of Afghanistan. He blitzed his subordinates through a xylophone and bass drum-led version of “Happy Jack” which was accompanied by the inscrutable movements of the band members, like some twisting triple helix of mod. From there, they snuck right into “Pinball Wizard,” allowing the horn section to assert its dominance. Like this:

but with more anoraks, vespas, and amphetamines.

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