Jason Kirby had been chasing a ring for 24 years.
He came close in 2004 at Bureau Valley when he led the Storm to a Class 3A state runner-up finish, falling to Addison Driscoll in the title game.
Last Friday, he got it.
Kirby’s West Central Heat outlasted Amboy-LaMoille-Ohio in a 44-36 shootout for the Illinois 8-Man Football Association state championship at Monmouth College. He couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief by catching that elusive championship.
“I’m looking forward to that kind of thing (sizing up a ring) and having that lifelong dream accomplished,” he said. “I work at it pretty hard. I hoped. You never know. I just hoped.
“It was a relief to win because we had played so well all year. Although it felt rewarding, at the time it was just a relief. I knew how much better Amboy was. I knew how well they could play us. I knew it was going to be a great football game. Just thankful for how it turned out.”
What made the moment most rewarding for Kirby was to get to share it with his father, Rick, 73, who’s been with him every step of the way from his playing days at Tolono Unity to all his coaching stops along the way.
“Getting to share that moment as he’s getting older was incredibly special for me. You just don’t know how many more moments like that you’re going to have. Just to see how happy he was and get to share that with them was awfully, awfully special,” Kirby said.
“Can’t remember a football game my dad wasn’t at or waiting for me when I got home to talk about it. He’s been alongside me for 25 years coaching. To get to share a special moment with him literally standing right next to me is beyond words.”
Well versed with Amboy football from his days at Bureau Valley, Kirby knew the Clippers would pose a formidable challenge, even if the Heat beat them 66-30 in Week 9.
“Their kids played football when I was at Bureau Valley. They played hard and physical. Played downhill, great defense. Great tacklers,” he said. “All of those things about Amboy. Being at Bureau Valley, and how much we had to gear up for those Amboy games made me awfully conscious.”
This year’s state run brought many flashbacks for Kirby to his days at Bureau Valley, a place he affectionately refers to as “Blue Heaven” and holds dear to his heart.
“Just the camaraderie of the team. The way the communities came together, everybody had their seat on the bus and they wanted on it and they were riding in the same direction,” he said. “It was that case in ‘04 and that five-year run at Bureau Valley. Everybody wanted the same thing and the same thing is true at our school right now.”
Kirby has been overwhelmed by the all support he has received back at Bureau Valley.
“Some of the notes and messages I’ve got from those people there I’ll treasure,” he said. “You hope you make relationships that are lifelong when you go to a place and spend five years there. I wouldn’t be where I am in my career if it wasn’t for what took place at Bureau Valley.”
Kirby had a great thing going at Bureau Valley, leading the Storm to quarterfinal appearances in his last four years, capped by the state runner-up finish in ‘04. He had a 41-15 record in five seasons before departing for downstate Herrin.
Admittedly, he didn’t found the grass greener. He missed out on the Storm’s state championship in 2005 and a semifinalist appearance in 2006. Kirby coached one year at Herrin before embarking on a long road to West Central, where he also serves as principal, that sent him to coaching stops at Sherrard, Rockridge, Canton and United Township.
Kirby said 8-man football has been a real blessing for West Central, which has gone 28-3 since making the switch three years ago. Even though they have 31 players in their program, the Heat wouldn’t have the man power to play 11-man, he said.
“We wouldn’t have a football program if it wasn’t for 8-man,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Holy Cow, you have 31 kids out?’ Well, if we were playing 11-man, we would have a freshman playing at defensive back, another one probably playing guard. We would have other freshman and sophomores on defense. We wouldn’t have been able to practice because the varsity would have been practicing against the F/S, which would have been mostly freshmen. You can’t do that. That’s not fair to F/S kids.
“Since we’ve been in 8-man, our half-line segments are our 1s against our 1s. The other half of our half-line segments are our soph team playing against our F/S team. 1s vs. 1s there as well. It makes for very spirited and competitive practices. Does nothing but improve your football program from freshmen all the way up to seniors.”
The Heat coach said they will have a strong nucleus returning to make another run at state next year and expects Amboy to back as strong as ever.
Kevin Hieronymus has been the BCR Sports Editor since 1986. Contact him at email@example.com