BLOOMINGTON — It might have been the start of the summer, but football was in the air over the weekend for two former Morris players and their head coach last week at the Illinois High School Shrine Game.
Morris head coach Alan Thorson was selected to be the head coach of the West team, while players Dylan Swartz (offensive line) and Kyle Little (defensive line) were selected as players. Also on the East squad was defensive back Nick Daniel of Minooka. And, although the game touched on a playoff game type of atmposphere, it was far from the only thing those that participated will remember.
"The kids just had an awesome week," Thorson said. "The coaches did, too. We have played Washington the last four or five years, but I never really had a lot of time to actually talk to coach [Darrell] Crouch. This week, he was on the coaching staff and we talked a lot and got to know each other real well. We would have meetings and bounce ideas off each other. It was a great experience.
"Plus, we visited the Children's Hospital that's down there, and that is a life-changing experience. Seeing the kids that are in that hospital really opens your eyes and makes you appreciate what you have like you never did before."
The week started Tuesday with the players and coaches checking in and attending various meetings. On Wednesday, the two teams were escorted in four charter buses by Shriners and the police department to the Children's Hospital, where they were given a tour and attended presentations on what the hospital does and offers to the children it cares for. Then, there was time for players on both teams to play some wheelchair basketball with some of the kids in the hospital.
On Thursday, there were two practices for the teams. In between, one team helped coach a Miracle League Softball game while the other was being entertrained by a magician, and then they switched venues. On Friday, there were two practices and then the players attended a banquet in their honor before playing the game at Illinois Wesleyan's field on Saturday, which the East squad won, 36-26.
Thorson said that Little was selected by the coaching staff to be a team captain for the game, while Swartz was nominated for the character award. Coaches on the staff included Thorson as head coach and Ben Hammer of Rock Island, Jason Bachman of Eureka, Elliott Craig of Cuba-North Fulton, Toby Vallas of Farmington and Crouch of Washington.
"We weren't allowed to vote for our own players," Thorson said. "But the other five all voted for Dylan for the character award. That made me proud as his coach. He is just a natural leader. And, it was great that they all saw the work ethic in Kyle and named him a captain. i couldn't have been prouder of those guys.
"The game itself was more intense than I thought it might be. Once it started, we all fell back into game mode. You have six head coaches on the sideline, and it's going to get that way. Our guys played well. Kyle had a great game. He had a sack or two, was in on a bunch of tackles and blocked a field goal. Dylan played as a center, guard and a tackle at one point or another, and did great at all of them."
Both players toroughly enjoyed the entire experience.
"It was an awesome week," said Swartz, who will play at Aurora University next year. "Going into the week, you are thinking you are going to see these guys who were your rivals on the field, but by the end of the week, you realize they are just like you and you become friends. To me, the Miraclle League softball game stands out. You spend some time coaching these kids and one of them hit a double and gave me a big hug. That was a great feeling. It lets you realize that you have an opportunity to be able to go do what you want, but that a lot of other kids can't do that.
"Honestly, it was the most fun week I had playing high school football."
Little agreed with Swartz.
"It was such a great time," said Little, who is still undecided about whether his college future will include footblall or not. "I met a lot of new people and it was a great experience. Like having played Washington the last two years, and their coach ends up being my position coach. That was cool.
"The softball game was the best thing, I think. It was fun to see how happy those kids were. They were looking at us, we're just high school football players, like we were heroes. To make them happy made me happy. The actual football game was kind of like in the background. These kids have been through a lot and it gives you a new perspective.
"That game was fun, too. It was more intense than I thought it would be. You have that vibe in the morning like normal game day. It was fun to go out there and put that Redskin helmet on one more time, play with Dylan one more time and have coach Thorson coach me one more time."