‘FIELD OF DREAMS’: Ihnen, host of Rantoul community members have come together in support of Eagles football

RANTOUL — When Tom Hess first took over as head coach of Rantoul football, one of the key pillars of the program he wanted to build was a stronger community.

Delbert Ihnen and his family have taken that to heart.

Ihnen and his sister — Carleen Lantis, mother of senior lineman/linebacker Corbin Lantis — wanted to do something to show their appreciation and support of the team. Ihnen, who lives near where the Eagles practice at Wabash Park, suggested having a cookout where they would feed the entire team.

Lantis ran the idea past Hess, who loved the idea. After all, the players walk right past Ihnen’s front porch following each practice on their way back to the high school locker room.

So Ihnen and several others got to work. The first cookout three weeks ago featured 90 hot dogs served up by Ihnen and company on his lawn — which features a garden of purple and gold flowers to match the Eagles’ school colors, signs, two small-scale goal posts and a mini football field with white lines.

“I thought, if we build it, they will come. I feel like I’m in the ‘Field of Dreams.’ Then, I thought, it’s not what the football team can do for you; it’s what you can do for the football team,” Ihnen said. “I truly feel like I’m in the field of dreams. I feel blessed. And the families and the community have really pitched in and helped. It’s been awesome.”

Two weeks ago, the number jumped to 140 hot dogs, and last Wednesday, Ihnen served up 160 porkchops.

“The team has progressively gotten better. I’m so proud of them as a cook. I’m like, ‘Yay, go boys.’ It’s been fun,” Ihnen said with a laugh. “I’m from the country, and it’s like a herd of cattle coming in. It’s like, ‘Wow!’

“When they keep coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths it’s great. A cook’s best compliment is when they like the food, and it’s gone. It’s actually all gone. One kid was leaving, and he was on his fifth sandwich. We were trying to push for him to get his sixth in because it’s an even number. That was a blast.”

Just like a football team, however, Ihnen is quick to point out it is not all him who should receive the credit. The Rantoul resident rattled off a long list of people who have helped in the process — his mother, Betty, Ed Cargo, Brad Frerichs, Jerrod Lantis, Tony Lantis, Mary Brown, Brian and Becky Schluter, Scott Schmidt, Chuck Hinners, Brett Welch, Steve Hadler, Cathy Lutes and County Market.

His brother, who gave him the idea of the purple-and-gold garden, provided 100 ears of sweet corn. Brian Schluter drove all the way to Hoopeston to get another 100 ears of sweet corn and brought a boiler that boils 50 of them at a time. Cargo helped build the signs and two goal posts on his lawn. Frerichs and Travis Emery from the Rec Department helped create the football field by painting the white lines.

“There’s no I in team here. It’s not just me, and I say the more, the merrier,” Ihnen said. “I’ve gotten a lot of help. I couldn’t have done it by myself. No way. It’s not about me. It’s about the team. … I’m just glad they enjoy it, and we enjoy doing it. It’s all about teamwork and supporting them.”

A large part of Ihnen’s motivation behind providing the cookouts is hoping to build the community up.

“It broke my heart when the team had the tragedy, and they’ve had their challenges on and off the field,” Ihnen said, referring to the death of Donnell Robertson this summer. “I figured they could use a pickup and let them know the community’s behind them, good, bad or ugly.

“Everyone’s invited to come, and I’ve got to tell you, I sit here at night and think of how good these kids are and how respectful they are. Everything’s always picked up, and they’re always so polite. It’s incredible.”

For instance, with more than 100 ears of non-shucked sweet corn at each cookout, it wouldn’t be a surprise for remnants of the food to be left strewn on the lawn. But the players, Ihnen says, shuck the corn themselves, and when they’ve finished eating, there isn’t a single shuck left on the ground — not even silk from the corn. It’s all part of the upward trend the program has been on since the new regime took control in 2017.

“Coach Hess and all the coaches do such a great job. I see the energy out there, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ There’s definitely a difference,” Ihnen said. “I want to let those kids know how important they are to the community, and we enjoy how respectful they are.”

There is no shortage of appreciation from the players, who have been enjoying every second of the cookouts, and they realize the sense of community is growing stronger with the positivity surrounding the program.

“It’s the community coming through and team bonding,” senior Angelo Brown said. “Every week we’re getting everybody closer in the community and rooting for the Eagles to have a good season.”

“What Coach Hess, and really all of us, are doing is changing Rantoul from a losing culture into a winning culture and be more positive,” Corbin Lantis said. “It’s been really negative around here for a long time, so I think a good football program will really boost morale in the whole community if you start a winning tradition.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

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