40 years ago, Morris sent its first team to state

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It was 1979. The country was going through what President Jimmy Carter called a “crisis of confidence.” There were lines at gas stations due to rationing. United States citizens had been taken hostage in Iran. Disco music was all the rage.

It wasn’t a good time in America.

In the small town of Morris, Illinois, though, the fall and early winter of 1979 was like nothing the town had ever seen.

A group of high school student-athletes seized the attention of the town and gave it something to root for and take pride in.

The Morris Redskins football team, coached by Dan Darlington, who had taken over the reins at his alma mater in 1977, reached the newly created IHSA football playoffs for the first time and put the little farming community with a nuclear plant attached on the statewide football map.

Darlington, who graduated from MCHS in 1968, brought with him two classmates – Keith Laughary and Denny Steele – to be his assistant coaches, and the triumvirate helped make Morris a multi-sport power throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Their influence is felt even into the present day.

But, in 1979, it was fresh and new. People who didn’t even know that much about football heard about the team, which kept on winning, and began showing up in droves. By the end of the season, a Friday night football game had become an event. A normally quiet and reserved man with the unassuming name of John Smith donned a Native American headdress, transformed into Johnny Redfeather, and led the growing crowd in cheers.

“That started out as kind of a joke,” John “Buzz” Smith said. “I am not really that outgoing of a guy, but Billy Button kind of goaded me into it. I started leading cheers and, about the fourth game or so, people really started to get into it, so I kept doing it.

“My wife thought I was crazy, but it was fun. All the credit goes to the kids on the team, though. If they hadn’t played so hard and so well, no one would have been there cheering. But they kept winning and the whole town was coming to those games. I would bet there were 5,000 fans at that Geneseo game.”

“That was back when you had to win your conference to make the playoffs,” Darlington recalled. “Geneva and Sycamore were the two powerhouses in the Little Seven Conference at that time. I think my first year, Geneva won it and my second year, Sycamore won it.

“Football really brought this town together. People could come out to the football games and cheer for the football team and forget about their own problems for a couple of hours every Friday night. Even people who said they hated football started coming to games. I would say 90 percent of the town was behind us, rooting for us. It was a great feeling.

“Morris had never been to state in anything, so it was a whole new thing. That team was treated like royalty. Even people in the surrounding towns got behind us. I remember one guy from Coal City treated the team to dinner, and so did the the owners of the Town House, back when that was still around. It was something.”

On the field, a center and middle linebacker wearing No. 51 - Ed Brady - started to remind folks of Dick Butkus. Like Butkus and his head coach, Brady went on to play football at University of Illinois. He started for the Illini in the Rose Bowl against UCLA before spending a decade in the NFL and even playing in a Super Bowl for the Cincinnati Bengals. But it was that 1979 season he remembers most fondly.

“I am just a kid from Fremont Avenue,” he said. “The guys I played with in high school, they are still some of my best friends now. I took a lot of Morris with me into the Super Bowl. Everything I learned about football started here, so there was always a lot of Morris with me whenever I played.

“The guys on my college team, I was only on the same team with for four years. It was about the same in the NFL. But they guys I played in high school with, I had grown up playing with since we were about six or seven years old until we were 18. Those are the guys I remember most, and going to state with them is something I will never forget.”

Brady wasn’t the only star on the field. Teammate Sheldon Sobol played for Northern Illinois University and helped lead the Huskies to their first Division I bowl game appearance (1983 California Bowl) before graduating and becoming the Grundy County State’s Attorney before being named a Circuit Court Judge.

“As good as Ed was, and we all knew he was the best player on the field, everyone else on the team knew they had a job to do, too,” Sobol said. “We just didn’t sit around and wait for Ed to do everything.

“We knew coming into the season that we were going to be pretty good. Our junior class was good and we had some real good seniors. I was the free safety and through our first three games, I didn’t have a tackle. That’s how hard it was for the other teams to get past our defensive line and linebackers.”

One of the members of the defensive line was Scott Belt, who currently serves as the Morris City Attorney. He also played offensive tackle for the Redskins.

“What I remember most about that team was the camaraderie,” Belt said. “We all worked together really well. We had a lot of guys going both ways, but we didn’t have a lot of injuries.

“I remember one time we were just hanging out with the coaches and coach Darlington said that he felt we had what it took to get into the playoffs and make it to state. Morris had never been in the playoffs before, so to have our coach tell us that he believed we could do it meant a lot.”

Those that were juniors on the 1979 team - notably quarterback Bill Button, running back Mark Sharp, lineman Harvey Van Cleave, and receiver Frank Varner, returned and led Morris to the state championship a year later, dominating Plano and Harrisburg in the semifinals and title game by a combined score of 74-0.

But those games probably wouldn’t’ have happened had it not been for a couple of nailbiters in 1979, one what went Morris’ way and one that didn’t. The 1979 season was when Morris was Rocky Balboa in the first movie. The underdog that finally got its shot, lost in the end, but made a name for itself.

At that time, a football team had to win its conference in order to qualify for the playoffs. Sycamore and Geneva had been the powers in the Little Seven Conference up to that point, but Morris beat them all in 1979, and entered the playoffs undefeated.

Once there, they began with a two-week decimation of the town of Lisle, first beating Lisle, 29-10, then going on the road to beat Lisle Benet Academy, 21-6.

That brought about a matchup with the Best from the West, a trip to Geneseo, which had won the previous three Class 3A state titles with a combined record of 38-1 over those three years and 11-0 entering the semifinals. That’s 49 wins in the last 50 games for the Maple Leafs, and here comes Morris, playing in the playoffs for the very first time.

“Geneseo had won three state titles in a row,’ Darlington said. “I remember driving through the town on the way to their stadium and there was a sign up that said ‘The only Morris we’ve ever heard of is No. 34,’ because they had a kid on their team whose last name was Morris and he wore No. 34.”

Either Morris didn’t know that they were supposed to lose that game, or the Redskins didn’t care. Either way, they put up a 14-8 upset on the board and suddenly, everyone in the state knew about Morris. The Redskins were on their way to the state championship to take on Mascoutah, which featured all-state quarterback Kris Jenner, who would later be a teammate of Brady’s on the U of I Rose Bowl team.

“We were on our way back from Geneseo and we got to the LaSalle and Grundy County line and all of a sudden, the bus sped up,” Sobol recalled. “We looked ahead of the bus, and the Grundy County deputies were escorting us down the highway. We pulled into the parking lot at Pizza Hut and there were fire trucks waiting for us to take us through town where people were lined up waiting for us.”

During the Geneseo game, Morris had built a 14-0 lead and, in the fourth quarter, Darlington noticed something.

“I went over to Denny Steele on the sideline and told him, ‘Look at their crowd. No one is moving. It’s like a picture.’ Their crowd was stunned. We weren’t supposed to come in there and have them down 14-0 in the fourth quarter.

“We had a drive in the fourth quarter that stalled and I decided to try a field goal, because if we kick a field goal there, the game was pretty much over. The one thing I didn’t think about is what if they block it. Well, they blocked it and one of their guys picked it up at about the 50. I remember not knowing if our guys even knew they had to tackle him, but someone did. They drove it to the 5-yard line or so and on fourth down threw a little pop pass to the tight end. Either Brady or Butler knocked it down, but their guy had been knocked down, too, and it fell right into his chest on the ground in the end zone. Then, they got the onside kick and their stands weren’t like a picture any more. But, our defense held them and we went on to state.”

Morris trailed Mascoutah 7-6 late in the state title game and faced third-and-short from about the 25-yard line. The Redskins ran for what appeared to be a first down, until a penalty was called. Assisting the runner against Morris. At the time, it was a loss of down and 15 yards, moving the ball back and forcing the Redskins to attempt a 50-yard field goal, which missed.

“I have coached a lot of football games, and never have I ever seen that call, before or since,” Darlington said. “All of the officials from that game were from within 30 miles of Mascoutah and we had 10 penalties called against us and they didn’t have any.

“Here’s how young and stupid I was back then. We had a press conference after the game and I was still mad about that call. I remember I told the press that we would be back the next year and we would make it so one call wouldn’t beat us.”

It didn’t matter to the town, though. The Redskins got a hero’s welcome upon their return. Having played the final game of the night, they spent the night in Bloomington before coming home Saturday morning.

“When we got off of 55 in Dwight, the mayor of Dwight got on the bus and congratulated us,” Sobol recalled. “Everyone around here was rooting for us and was proud of us.”

“That was a neat feeling,” Darlington said. “The police escorted the bus back into town all the way up 47 from Dwight to Morris and there was a little parade downtown for us. The next year, when we won it, we came back that night and the bus went down Liberty Street at around 11 o’clock. Everyone came out of the bars downtown and were coming up to the bus and shaking the guys hands through the windows. It looked like Corn Festival, there were so many people.

“That’s what I remember most about those two teams. The way they brought the town together and made people proud to be from Morris.”

Since the playoffs began in 1974, Morris has made an appearance in 11 state championship games, winning state titles in 1980 (3A), 1984 (4A) and 2005 (6A). The Redskins have been state runner-up in 1979, 1989, 1994, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2017. According to www.ihsa.org, only Joliet Catholic Academy (18), Chicago Mt. Carmel (17), and Providence Catholic (13) have more state championship appearances than Morris, which is tied with East St. Louis and Wheaton Warrenville South for fourth place.