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Adon Navarette walked into a meeting in Springfield last February.
The director of affinity programs for AEP Energy in Chicago had a deal to get done with Bill Fleischli of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association.
When Navarette sat down and introduced himself to Fleischli, Fleischli had a far-away look in his eyes.
“He repeats my name three times,” Navarette recalled recently. “He goes ‘Adon Navarette. Adon Navarette. Adon Navarette.’ Then he goes, did you play football? I said, ‘Yeah, I did.’
Where did he play? Fleischli inquired
Rantoul Township High School, Navarette told him.
Fleischli, still inquisitive, asked if it was Rantoul, Ill.
Navarette nodded his head before Fleischli continued with the conversation.
“You guys beat us in the state playoffs,” Fleischli said. “You had a hell of a game that day.”
Puzzled, Navarette wondered how a man he had never met before knew that Navarette helped the Eagles beat Springfield Griffin 18-14 in a Class 4A second-round playoff game in 1987.
Turns out, Fleischli’s brother — George Fleischli, who was Griffin’s head coach from 1975-79 — was a Griffin assistant coach in that game, which was the final football game Springfield Griffin played.
The private school merged with Sacred Heart the next school year to form what is now Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
While RTHS football and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin football are worlds apart these days, 25 years ago that wasn’t the case.
Twenty-five years ago, the 1987 Eagles football team, led by the late head coach Dick Hood, took the Rantoul community on a ride it had never seen before — and has not seen since.
“I don’t care where I’m at,” Navarette said, “someone brings that season up.”
And as far as the business deal Navarette came to Springfield to accomplish last winter?
“Thankfully, we were still able to get the deal done,” Navarette said with a laugh. “He didn’t hold that against me.”
Monical’s the place to be
Two time zones away, Mike Pond picked up the phone. When he heard this reporter’s request, all he could do was chuckle.
In his laid-back California inflection, the game above is the first memory that pops into his head.
“Beating Springfield Griffin,” said Pond, a senior kicker who played an instrumental role in that team’s success, “but gosh, what else? That was 25 years ago, man.”
While several former RTHS players contacted for this story almost instantly bring up the Griffin game, there was more to the 1987 season that saw RTHS finish with a 10-3 record, win the school’s first-ever playoff game and fall one win short of playing in a state championship game, losing 27-8 at Roxana in a state semifinal game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1987.
Like the throng of teenagers who would fill Monical’s Pizza along U.S. 136 after an Eagles home game.
Or players hanging out in the Pamida parking lot (now Rural King).
“Those of us who had cars would drive the strip is what we called it,” said Shane Carter, a junior backup offensive and defensive lineman on that squad, in reference to the stretch of U.S. 136 that runs through town. “Everybody would sit out in their cars and talk. A lot of guys hung together.”
Deron Jones, a junior defensive back who was thrust into the starting quarterback role after senior John Whaley injured his knee before the Eagles’ week four game against Champaign Central, said Hood was a stickler for details.
One of them involved making sure his players left the field immediately after the game and found their way to the locker room.
“But as the season progressed and (the wins started accumulating), getting into the locker room was a problem,” Jones said. “Little kids would start lining up trying to get your autograph. For a 16- or 17-year-old kid, that was a head-inflating moment.”
A similar situation would happen to Duane Northrup, a senior defensive end and tight end with the Eagles. Northrup worked at the IGA grocery store that fall.
“People would come into the IGA and talk to me and call me by name,” he said. “I didn’t have a clue who they were, but they knew I played on the Rantoul football team. It was great. It made you feel good because they’d come in all pumped up and excited for the upcoming game.”
Hood was in charge
Falling one game shy of playing at Hancock Stadium on the campus of Illinois State University for the state championship game in late November probably didn’t enter many Eagle fans’ minds once preseason practices started in 1987.
It did for Navarette, however, even though the senior fullback/linebacker had missed most of his junior season with an injury and the Eagles were coming off a 4-5 season in 1986, with three of those wins by forfeit.
“Our class, going into our freshman year, we kind of had a really good reputation and potential of where we could go just because of the winning record we had of playing (youth football) together,” Navarette said. “The Rantoul Falcons was the team at the time that beat up on the Champaign schools and the Danville schools. Going into our freshman year, there was already a reputation that this class was special and could be special if we stuck together and all our players stuck together. Going into our senior year, I think the town knew we could be special. I know we did as players.”
Having a coach like Hood, who was about to start his 10th season and had led RTHS to its first-ever playoff appearance in 1981, helped matters.
And Hood loved his football, according to former RTHS athletic director Roger Quinlan.
“He would just spend countless hours on football,” Quinlan said. “He actually belonged at the college level where it was a 24/7 job for him because that was his life. He just absolutely loved football.”
Even if it meant his players weren’t that fond of him.
“Triple sessions and double sessions in the summer were probably some of the worst memories of my life,” Pond said with a laugh. “It was awful, and it’s in Illinois where it’s hot all the time. You’re going three times a day and basically running in full pads all the time. Going into my senior year, I kept wishing that all I’d have to do was kick, but I still had to do triple sessions.”
Chanute Air Force Base was still open at the time.
The town was more than a year away from learning the base would soon start ceasing operations that prompted a full closure by 1993.
Pond’s father worked at the base, which led him to Rantoul before his freshman year from San Antonio.
“Texas football is a different world, and it felt a lot like that (in Rantoul),” Pond said. “We were way more dedicated than I expected. Coach Hood was a ... good team motivator. He wasn’t charismatic, but we all felt very close to him during the season, and I’m not exactly sure why.”
Players had a typical love/hate relationship with Hood that often surfaces when a demanding coach expects perfection from his players. All the time.
“He was a coach you hated, but respected,” Carter said. “He didn’t mess around. He was going to tell you how it was.”
“Dick Hood drilled us to death,” he said. “I remember hating him. Everybody did. Coach Hood’s favorite thing to say was ‘Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.’ We’d run a play 100 times if it took 100 times.”
Even if that meant practices would last well into the night.
“Coach Hood would push us, and we would practice as long as we needed to,” Carter said. “I remember one time getting ready for the Roxana game. We were having practice, and it was getting dark, and all I remember is him yelling to Jack, our manager, to ‘Turn the lights on.’ We were on the football field, and Whaley said something to him, and oh my God, he just snapped.”
Northrup said Hood wasn’t afraid to show the Eagles who he wanted them to block, either.
“If a person could eat, drink and sleep football, I’m sure he did,” Northrup said. “All I remember is him always being out there in his coaching shorts and his t-shirt. His playbook would be stuffed in the back of his shorts. He’d get just as excited as we would when we’d make good plays.”
But without the hard-driving Hood, Carter doesn’t think the Eagles would have reaped all the benefits they did that season.
“If it wasn’t for him, those practices and the way he did things, I don’t think we would have had the success,” Carter said. “We had the talent, but he was the one that put it all together.”
The regular season
The Eagles didn’t score their first touchdown until week two.
Bloomington came to Bill Walsh Field and shut out the Eagles 7-0 in their season opener.
But then the Eagles beat Urbana 28-6 at home for their first win before powering past Decatur MacArthur 25-12 in their first road game.
Sophomore running back Reggie Dampeer and Navarette paved the way in that victory. The next week featured the first start for Jones against Champaign Central, and the left-handed passer threw for 174 yards in a 24-6 home win that ran the Eagles’ record to 3-1.
Having Navarette and Dampeer in the backfield, with senior wide receiver Jimmy Fenwick and junior wide receiver Jeff Taylor split out and senior offensive linemen Charles Neitzel and Jim Burke clearing the way, Jones didn’t have to worry about winning games by himself.
“We could beat you in any way,” Jones said. “I remember Neitzel and Adon going to me (before the Champaign Central game), ‘Hey dude, you can’t go wrong giving the ball to Adon. If you’ve got any doubt at all, you give it to Adon, and you know it’s going to be at least five yards.’ I couldn’t tell you how many times that guy had six or seven people on him in the course of the run, and he would keep going. It was insane.”
The wins kept coming for the Eagles. A 41-14 thumping of host Mattoon followed the next week, and the Eagles went to 5-1 after a 47-0 home win against Decatur Eisenhower that saw Neitzel finish with six tackles for loss.
RTHS improved to 6-1 after a 23-18 home win against Danville and won 29-6 on a Saturday afternoon at Champaign Centennial to not only ensure a playoff berth at 7-1, but win the Big 12 East Conference championship.
“Once we beat Centennial,” Carter said, “is when we really started to believe.”
The Eagles were brought back to Earth the following Friday night with a 29-7 loss at Normal Community.
Regardless, the Eagles finished the regular season 7-2 and brimming with confidence. The playoffs were next.
The Griffin game
You most likely won’t ever see this scenario happen again with Illinois high school football. A Wednesday night playoff game.
That’s what RTHS found itself in going up against Mahomet-Seymour in a 4A first-round game.
The Eagles managed to hold on for a 21-14 win against the rival Bulldogs on Bill Walsh Field to secure the school’s first-ever playoff victory.
The Eagles, however, had little time to savor the historic accomplishment. A second-round home game with Griffin awaited in a little more than 48 hours.
Griffin came into the Saturday game unbeaten and ranked first in state. They also came in with a swagger that ticked plenty of Eagles off.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Navarette said. “It was a sunny day. There was kind of a chill in the air. I remember warming up on the field, and I see these guys get off their bus. All of them wore hats that said, ‘Top Gun,’ on it. I remember turning to my buddy (senior) Derrick (Hayes) and saying, ‘Really? They’re coming into our house with Top Gun hats.’ Right then and there for me, the switch just turned on. I didn’t know if we were going to win, but I knew that they’d be in for a fight. I wanted them to know that they played Rantoul that day.”
Northrup saw the same hats. So did most of the Eagles. But that didn’t necessarily translate into a sure-fire win for RTHS.
“I remember sitting there watching film of them thinking, ‘Holy cow. These guys are freaking huge, and they’re studs,’” Carter said.
Pond had similar thoughts.
“They walked in — and rightly so — thought they would beat the hell out of us, and surprisingly didn’t,” he said with a laugh. “By all accounts, I don’t think anybody thought we would win.”
What ensued is likely one of the greatest RTHS football games at Bill Walsh Field.
Griffin took a 7-0 lead early before Pond hit a 47-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced over to cut the Eagles’ deficit to 7-3 with less than eight minutes left in the second quarter.
“The Springfield Griffin game was a slow motion part of my life,” Jones said. “I can recall things from that game, like Mike Pond’s field goal hitting the crossbar and going over. I held that field goal, and Dante Netherly snapped it. When he snapped it, he snapped it high, so I actually had to stand up to catch the ball over my head, dropped down to a knee, and that ball hit the tee as Mike’s foot hit the ball.”
RTHS took a 10-7 lead with 1:31 left before halftime when Jones hit Fenwick on an 8-yard touchdown pass.
That drive was set up by a fumble recovery by Dampeer.
“That was a sprint-out pass that I don’t think I ever threw successfully even once in practice with a comeback route with (two wide receivers) on one side,” Jones said. “I can remember throwing the ball and seeing three different people criss cross right in between them. To this day, I still don’t know how in the hell that ball got there.”
But Griffin answered with a touchdown of its own right before half to take a 14-10 lead. Those points, however, were the last ones the Eagles would give up on the day.
Two field goals by Pond, an intentional safety by Griffin and an onside kick recovery by RTHS senior Jim Stubblefield wrapped up the unlikely win.
“It was a brutal, great football game,” Carter said. “Bodies were flying around everywhere. It was what high school football is supposed to be.”
People that drove by Bill Walsh Field the week after the win against Griffin could easily recount the score. The school left the scoreboard on that following week with the score still lit up.
Support came in droves
Jones went to the sidelines with his right wrist in pain after the first offensive series against Griffin. He had broken the navicular bone in his wrist.
“I went over to coach and said, ‘Coach, I broke my wrist,’” Jones said. “Hood looked at me and goes, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Just give me some tape. All I need is some tape.’ We slapped some tape on. Two plays later I was back in. I played that whole game with a broken wrist. I played all the rest of the playoff games with a broken wrist. It was incredibly painful.”
So, why exactly did he do it?
“It was for the chicks, man,” Jones said. “Are you kidding me?”
The attention the Eagles received from the opposite gender continued for another week. RTHS traveled to Effingham and routed the Flaming Hearts 35-13. Then it was on to Roxana for a semifinal game against the Shells. The Eagles had plenty of followers making the trek, too.
“When we went to the playoffs, the town’s bringing fan buses,” Carter said, “not just the school.”
“On those bus rides down to Effingham and Roxana people went out on the interstate to put signs on the snow fences,” Jones said. “For 15-20 miles outside the town we’re looking at ‘Go Eagles!’ signs.”
The support wasn’t limited to just signs, either, Navarette remembers.
“That team not only brought the community together, but also the base,” Navarette said. “I would go on base and play basketball, and airmen would tell me, ‘Good luck this Friday.’”
Some losses stay with players a long time. Jones can attest to that. Roxana’s nickname is the Shells after the gas station and oil refineries that are prevalent in and around the small town east of St. Louis.
“To this very day, I have never once gassed up at a Shell gas station,” he said. “I probably never will. I once pushed my car four blocks past a Shell station to get to an Amoco in Bloomington because I had run out of gas, and the girl I was with at the time couldn’t believe I wouldn’t go to the Shell station, but I just couldn’t.”
The numbers the Eagles put up that season are impressive.
Navarette wound up with 1,213 rushing yards on 214 carries.
He now lives five minutes from Soldier Field in Chicago and has worked in the city since 1998 after he played college football at Weber State and Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana.
He does not have children and is not married, but still has family in Champaign County.
He’s even an ordained minister who officiated his niece’s wedding at the University of Illinois campus this fall.
Dampeer added 526 yards on 103 carries in his only varsity season with the Eagles. His family moved to Texas after the season, where he still lives.
Jones completed 57-of-119 passes for 891 yards and five touchdowns that season.
He has worked as a research scientist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for the last 15 years. He and his wife of 15 years, Emilie, have two children, 10-year-old Casey and 7-year-old Eli, and return to Rantoul 3-4 times a year to visit family.
Carter teaches at RTHS and lives in Paxton. He tried to resurrect the glory days of Eagles football, but was let go in 2011 after four seasons as the program’s head coach.
Taylor, who compiled a team-high 142 tackles in 1987 and added 580 receiving yards on 31 receptions before going on to play college football at Northern Illinois University, lives in Florida with his family.
Neitzel, who made 100 tackles that season, is an assistant principal at Champaign Centennial High School and lives in Rantoul.
Northrup lives in Mahomet with his wife Christine and their three daughters — Madison, 15; Peyton, 13; and Kailyn, 12. He has served as the Champaign County Coroner since 2004.
Pond has lived in California since 1995. He owns his own architect company in Berkeley, Calif., called Berkeley Design Build. He and his wife, Dara, have two children — Emma, 13, and Lila Blue, 10.
Countless other Eagles who contributed to that season stay connected through Facebook and other social media these days.
Hood died in 2009 at the age of 66.
“I know a lot of the guys miss him,” Navarette said.
He finished 85-43 in his time at RTHS, leading the Eagles to the playoffs four times, including three in a row that started with the 1987 team. He wound up with a career record of 136-100-3 as a high school head coach in the state.
Hood’s words — “This is a team of destiny” — after the Eagles beat Centennial for the conference championship, are still relevant.
The program has only won four playoff games since the 1987 quarterfinal win against Effingham.
Future Eagles football teams one day might surpass what this squad did, but until then, this is the gold standard of RTHS football.
“Every time I get back to town, undoubtedly I run into somebody that brings that season up, either at one of the local watering holes or an old family friend,” Navarette said. “There’s so many memories from that season.”