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By Marty Farmer
Best friends since middle school, stars on rival playoff bound high school football teams, and, now, through complicated life circumstances, sharing a bedroom in south Oak Park, OPRF's Simmie Cobbs and Fenwick's Robert Spillane are living an improbable dream.
They star on the football field and at the Spillane family home the young men prove the bonds of friendship and family.
Oak Park and River Forest H.S. wide receiver Cobbs' high-leaping 29-yard touchdown catch during the Huskies' 29-6 win over Proviso West this season symbolically represented a full circle return to his football family. OPRF head coach John Hoerster embraced Cobbs on the sideline after the acrobatic snag and simply told him, "welcome back."
Cobbs, who went to OPRF during his first two years of high school before attending west suburban Montini as a junior, returned to the Huskies this school year. After missing OPRF's first two games, he was ruled eligible by the IHSA to play football this season.
"I'm speechless," Cobbs said after the win over Proviso West (Sept. 13). "I was so excited when I caught the touchdown pass. I haven't played at Oak Park since my sophomore year. It was very touching for me to see my teammates, my coaches and all the Oak Park fans all so happy for me. I never wanted to leave Oak Park in the first place, but it is what it is. I feel back home."
On the season, the 6-4, 215-pound senior who plays five positions has 32 catches for 452 yards and four touchdowns. He also has made an impact on special teams, returning six kickoffs for 102 yards and six punts for 69 yards.
The week before Cobbs' memorable 2013 gridiron debut, Fenwick senior running back Spillane served notice of his intentions for a special season, rushing for 220 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries in the Friars' 32-14 win against host Bishop Lynch in Dallas. Spillane rushed for 13 touchdowns and 950 yards on 121 carries (7.85 yards per carry), 17 receptions for 166 yards, 35 tackles and 1 ½ sacks during the regular season.
"That [Bishop Lynch] game was an experience I'll never forget," Spillane said. "It was a first class experience the whole way. [Fenwick head] Coach Nudo set it up like a college trip with everything planned including team meetings and practice. We fought hard in that Texas heat and got a big win."
In fact, winning meaningful football games has become de rigueur these days around the burgeoning OPRF and Fenwick football programs, thanks in considerable part to the exemplary work of Hoerster and Nudo.
"Coach Nudo brought in a whole new tradition and mindset," Spillane said. "He instilled within us the belief that we need to win, that's what a program like Fenwick does."
Cobbs added about Hoerster: "Coach Hoerster came to OPRF with the experience of being around a winning program at Mount Carmel, and his dad is a coaching legend. He emphasizes family, brotherhood and trusting each other to win games."
Cobbs and Spillane have taken the concepts of family, brotherhood and trust off the field and into their personal lives. They became close friends when they attended Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School together. After Cobbs' father died, he lived with his grandmother in Oak Park for awhile; however, he ultimately moved in with Robert and the Spillane family. It's been a win-win situation on and off the field for everybody involved.
"That's a lot of talent under one roof," Nudo said. "Simmie is a great kid and I'm that everything is working out for him. Robert is the most unique player I've ever coached at any level."
Parents, Mike and Gretchen, along with Nora, 16, who attends OPRF and is a member of the Huskies' lacrosse and cross country teams, along with Henry, 9, and Tim, 8, round out the Spillane family.
"We're very proud of Robert and Simmie, and all our kids," Gretchen said. "The boys are doing well in school and football. They are truly on their way now and we can't wait to watch them play college football next season."
Cobbs recently committed to play football at Purdue, while Spillane will join Western Michigan next season.
"Simmie is earning all As and Bs in the classroom. I am so proud of where he has come academically, athletically and socially," Hoerster said. "I am more than thrilled that he will have the opportunity to build on his potential in college.
"I run into Robert all the time around Oak Park, and it seems as if we go way back, like perhaps I coached him in another life," Hoerster said. "He's an energetic, positive kid and it's no surprise to me that he and Simmie have become so close."
While the best friends are focused on the upcoming state football playoffs, their stories of success have been paved with some rocky bumps along the defining way.
"We all have bad days and maybe even months," Cobbs said, "but the best way to approach life is to stay positive, keep your head up and do the best you can with what you have. Be grateful for life itself."
Spillane has endured his share of growing pains in high school.
"When I was a freshman [at Fenwick], I didn't really feel at home. I didn't even sing our fight song," he said. "I'm the type of kid who keeps my emotions inside. Fenwick just didn't feel right, but my dad told me to stick with it. It's the best decision I ever made. I'm really proud to say I'm a Friar."
When asked about Cobbs, Spillane expresses a similar feeling of pride.
"Simmie is my best friend. No matter what, we'll always have each other's back," Spillane said. "He has really gone through some hard times, but my family is here to support him. He's part of our family. A kid like Simmie has all the potential in the world, but he just needed some guidance. Coming here to live with us has been the perfect situation for him."
While their unbreakable bond is touching, make no mistake about it -- these guys are football players at heart. There's no room for sentimentality, particularly with the playoffs kicking off this week.
OPRF takes on Dundee-Crown in Class 8A, while Fenwick faces Hersey in 7A action. For both teams, who host the aforementioned opening round games, the big picture plan is bringing a state championship to Oak Park. For Cobbs and Spillane, their playoff mentality is win and go home.
The dynamic duo from south Oak Park teamed up with current fellow stars like the Huskies' Andre Lee and Jamal Baggett and the Friars' Ryan Smith to post a 24-0 record during their Oak Park youth football days.
"They are just two great guys and great athletes," Smith said. "It's pretty cool to see both teams doing so well."
Considering the Huskies and Friars claim a collective 16-2 mark this season, success obviously has transferred from youth football to the high school gridiron for Cobbs and Spillane.
"We've accomplished some of our goals but there's still work to do," Cobbs said about OPRF. "There's no room for mistakes in the playoffs. We need to step on the other team's throats and keep our focus the entire game."
Although Cobbs and Spillane will never know who would have won a game between their highly-regarded high school squads, Purdue and Western Michigan square off in West Lafayette, Ind. in both teams' college football season opener Aug. 30, 2014. "We're both really looking forward to that game," Spillane said. "I have expectations of playing as a true freshman [at Western Michigan]. I'm going to work my butt off during the offseason to make sure I'm on the field. I know Simmie will approach Purdue the same way."