About a year ago, I wrote a guest column about the recent success of the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team. It was right before the state playoffs started and I mentioned how important it was for Oak Park Stadium to become intimidating for opponents to play in. That means being boisterous, loud and supportive throughout the entire game, from the opening kickoff until the final whistle.
Having such an atmosphere is what successful teams call a 12th Man. Former Chicago Bears head coach (and current University of Illinois head coach) Lovie Smith called the Solider Field crowd “The 4th Phase.” What did he mean by that? He reasoned a successful football team has four phases — a dynamic offense, a tough defense, great special teams, and loud, supportive fans.
I thought about what he said and it makes sense a lot of sense. The high school programs that are consistently successful include all of these elements. I’m talking about schools like Loyola, Homewood-Flossmoor, Glenbard West, Mount Carmel, Joliet Catholic, Lincoln-Way East, and Hinsdale Central.
OPRF is the 13th-winningest football program in the state of Illinois, so there’s been a lot of successful teams, players and coaches in school history. However, by the turn of this century the Huskies had fallen into a coma. While it was evident that the program was a sleeping giant ready to be awakened, it needed the right coach.
Enter John Hoerster, whose father was a highly successful coach at Loyola and made the Coaches Hall of Fame in Illinois. He arrived in 2011 and starting the awakening process. The following season saw a return to the state playoffs and a first-round win at Hinsdale Central — the first playoff win since the early ’90s. Then in 2013 came a 9-win season, and OPRF football was finally out of its coma. An exciting offense? Hoerster has it. Tough defense? Absolutely. Solid special teams? He has that too.
But what about the 4th Phase, the 12th Man? While there’s no doubt attendance has significantly increased at Oak Park Stadium during Hoerster’s tenure, for the most part there hasn’t been a passionate community of fans, at least in my opinion. Look, I don’t have any sons on the team — in fact, I don’t have any children at all. I’m a devoted fan of high school sports and football in particular.
I have gone to games at Glenbard West and Fenwick, and I can feel and sense the enthusiasm and the passion the fans have for those schools. They’re loud, boisterous and supportive right from the start and it is a constant high level of noise coming from the bleachers. Same at Loyola, Maine South, Barrington, Homewood-Flossmoor, Lincoln-Way East and other successful schools.
Of course, the parents, relatives, and friends of the players on those teams will always be loud and supportive. But you know what makes the difference? The communities of those schools I named not only show up in numbers, both home and away, but the energy and passion coming from the stands transfers down to the players and provides an additional boost. That’s why they enjoy success consistently.
Here’s my bottom line: OPRF football may be a success in terms of wins and losses, but it won’t become wholly successful until we as a community actively start supporting the team. And by that I mean not only attending the games (I think we’re OK with that aspect) but having energy, having passion, and having enthusiasm. No more sitting on our hands waiting for something good to happen for the Huskies; instead let’s help the Huskies make something good happen by transferring our loud vibrations to the players.
A great team feeds off the energy the crowd supplies it, and that’s what I’ve been talking about the last couple of years. The Huskies haven’t won the conference since 1998. John Hoerster’s young men came up just short of a share of the conference championship this year. They need help, which we as a community can supply by turning out in full force. The state playoffs start this week on the road. If they win, game two may be at Oak Park Stadium. It’s time for the Dog Pound to raise the intensity, and it’s time for our community to rally around a team that unites us all.
Melvin Tate is an Oak Park resident.