In his three seasons as a varsity starter for the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team, Naahlyee Bryant has been a fierce competitor and fiery leader, named a co-captain twice.
So it was a strange sight to see Bryant dressed in street clothes April 24 at Duchon Field in Glen Ellyn as he was unable to play in his last high school game due to injury.
“It was hard to watch,” said Bryant after OPRF lost to host Glenbard West 48-28. “Because I know if I was on the field, I would’ve made some plays. To be in a position where you wish you could’ve done something to help the team but not being able to sucks and is heartbreaking.”
The Huskies (3-3) struggled defensively without Bryant against the Hilltoppers’ ground attack, particularly in the first half when they fell behind 21-0.
“There was some inconsistency early in the game, plays that we gave away and mistakes that we could’ve fixed up,” said OPRF coach John Hoerster. “But we didn’t let that sink us.”
In his final game, senior quarterback Jack Landis (21-for-26 passing, 239 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) got OPRF on the board with a two-yard keeper with 4:50 remaining in the first half.
But Glenbard West running back Jalen Moore scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes of the half, a 35-yard scamper and then a backbreaking 80-yard sprint as time expired to give the Hilltoppers (3-1) a commanding 35-7 halftime lead.
However, the Huskies made a second-half charge as Landis threw two touchdown passes — seven yards to Jemari Smith-Payton (10 catches, 84 yards) and six yards to Kaden Sleets — to trim the deficit to 35-21 with 7:47 remaining in the game.
“We knew a lot of seniors weren’t going to play football again,” said Landis. “We really wanted to leave it out on the field and show no quit.”
After Jason Thomas scored from 29 yards out for Glenbard West, OPRF countered with Landis’ third touchdown pass of the day, a 36-yard strike to DeShawn Willis. The Huskies then stopped the Hilltoppers at the Glenbard West 44-yard line with 2:54 left and had a chance to draw closer, but Landis was intercepted immediately by Will Sackett, and Glenbard West sealed the game with a 26-yard touchdown run by Korey Tai.
“They finished strong and played for four quarters,” Hoerster said. “It speaks tremendously to the character of the kids.”
Given the challenges of playing a season in the midst of a pandemic, Hoerster felt the Huskies handled the situation well. Unlike many other schools, OPRF was able to get its entire six-game season played.
“This year was immensely challenging. Very few teams in the state were able to get all six games in, [but] we did,” he said. “We stayed together and did the right thing. … I was really proud of how they handled all of the adversity this season.”
Afterwards, Bryant and Landis each reflected on what it meant to be a Huskie football player.
“It’s been a fun ride with them, some of whom I’ve been playing with since fifth grade,” Bryant said. “We weren’t always the best or most dominant team, but we were still one that loved each other and fought until the clock hit zero.”
“We always believe in our brothers, and we’re family who’s got each other’s backs,” Landis added.
Hoerster hopes the team realizes that nothing is ever guaranteed in life and that the lessons learned this spring will serve them well.
“Life is fragile and you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Hoerster said. “Take time to really appreciate the opportunities you have today.”