From the top of the ridge looking east, the headlights stretch for miles behind in a straight line, flanked on either side by the dark of harvested corn and soybean fields with the occasional farmhouse light glowing in the distance. Looking west, brake lights illuminate the entrance to Monticello, going straight down Washington Street toward the Square, everyone careful to not go more than 30 miles per hour because a police car is likely sitting in the entrance to either the Chimneys or Ridge Point, two subdivisions on the edge of town. Cars are already starting to fill up the parking lot of Monticello Middle School, though people are likely going home to get a bite to eat or use the restroom prior to the pep rally.
That’s the scene as it is described to me by my mother, as she drives home from Monticello High School’s first state championship in football on Friday. The Sages won 24-20, avenging a loss in the playoffs last season and staying a perfect 14-0 on the season. The scene is also imagined by prior experience driving down that road more times than I could possibly count.
The road is called Monticello Road because it is the road from Champaign, Illinois, to Monticello, my hometown of 5,500 people. The name of the road is not exactly unique, but it gets the point across. Many locals also call it “Ridge Road” because right before you enter into Monticello heading west, you go up a hill and can see for miles behind you. Now that I live in Montana, I don’t know that most people would consider that a hill, but Central Illinois is among the flattest places on earth and any land that is slightly elevated is a hill.
More than 6,000 Sages fans traveled Friday to Memorial Stadium – just 20 or so miles down the road on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign – for the Sages’ first state championship game. In the 2010 census, Monticello had a population of 5,548 people. Yes, a couple of other towns feed into the schools – White Heath (population: 290), Cisco (population 261) – and the district also includes those farmhouses and a few subdivisions in the middle of the country. But more than the population of Monticello made it to the game.
That’s not surprising to me, as I watched the game more than 1,000 miles away in Livingston, Montana, a similar sized town that I have lived in for the past six months and would not show out the same way Monticello did.
This is the first season in my memory that I have not attended a Monticello High School football game, but I kept tabs. I checked Twitter every Friday night to see as the Sages blew out one team after another (50-0, 52-7, 35-6, 50-0, 56-8, 41-0, 42-14, 49-20, 50-7, 50-7, 49-14, 63-21, 40-14). They really weren’t challenged until the state championship game. I tuned in to listen to a couple playoff games on the radio, likely the only livestreamer of Clinton’s 95.9 WEZC in the history of the state of Montana.
On Friday, I waited anxiously for the start of the game. I had to drive back from Thanksgiving at a friend’s house in White Sulphur Springs, normally an hour and 15-minute drive that turned into about an hour and 45 minutes after a freshly fallen snow lubricated U.S. Highway 89, but I still made it to work at the newspaper a little after 8 a.m.
In one stretch of good road – Montana has many places without cell phone service – I called my mother to talk about the Sages. I knew she’d be Black Friday shopping, but she took the time to talk about her plans for the day and whether the Sages had a shot. Of course they did.
At work, I anxiously wrote 3 stories for the afternoon paper, and streamed the earlier 1A and 2A state championship games, just to make sure I could.
I left work a little early to go on a long walk to help calm my nerves, heading along the Yellowstone River.
At around 2:15, I headed to the grocery store, Town & Country. It’s a wonderful grocery store, and it reminds me of County Market in Monticello, a place where you’re bound to see friends. In my family, like many families I assume, we have a tradition where we buy snacks instead of food for big football games: the rare Illini bowl game, the Rose Bowl, any other game I get excited for. We usually have something cheese-based (pretzels stuffed with cheese), chips and salsa or queso, frozen pizza and Diet Coke. I decided to get that spread for myself and I went home to watch the Sages football game. I even wore my Sages beanie that I got in high school, so it is at least 8 years old.
Tuning in, the announcers talked about the size of Monticello’s crowd. Once the game started, I heard the cowbells, bringing me back home to Friday nights in Monticello in the fall – the clanging of the bells rang by excited mothers, the blasting of trombones during “Monticello Loyalty,” the smell of body paint and feel of body-wide goosebumps while chest painting during high school games, the tight grip of a football that I used as a hat after I filled it too full with air in fifth grade during the Sages’ run to the state semifinals, one of a number of trips to the Final Four that didn’t result in a trip to Memorial Stadium, the taste of bad hot cheese and salty chips, the slight chuckle that accompanies underwhelming fireworks after touchdowns, the awkward pangs of seeing people you went to high school with but haven’t talked to in five years and the genuine flutter in your chest when Monticello is driving down the field against Unity, a school that encompasses a number of towns, some just 20 or so miles down the road that is the town’s biggest rival.
The pomp and circumstance of small-town high school football can feel ridiculous, but it balances all of those emotions, not putting too much burden on the serious but also hefty enough to carry the weight of a town’s expectation and excitement.
That might sound aggrandized, but that’s the beauty of it. The high school football team embodies the town.
Don’t get me wrong. The story of Monticello isn’t one of some broken town that pours all of its hopes and dreams into a bunch of teenagers’ on-field success. I’ve always thought of Monticello as a diverse community. No, not racially or ethnically. The town is 99 percent white. God knows it could use an injection of new ideas. Instead, it’s socio-economically diverse. There is great wealth and great poverty and it’s such a small town and school that you must experience both, which adds a great value to those who are empathetic enough to embrace it. Life doesn’t stop when the golden tassel is turned on a purple graduation cap.
Located halfway between Champaign and Decatur on I-72, Monticello residents commute to work at the University of Illinois and Archer Daniels Midland. Many parents have advanced degrees. The town can support pottery businesses, sandwich eateries and a frozen yogurt shop, plus a brewery and a coffee shop, each in their own old church. Even though the majority of town was at Memorial Stadium, the square still hosted a sold-out “Reds of Winter” wine-tasting event downtown. As a high schooler, the theater program, the marching band, the scholastic bowl team and the bass fishing team all had widespread, school-wide support.
Monticello football brings the entire community together. The town has been playing football for as long as the high school has existed. My sister, Claire, found a story from the Nov. 22, 1895, edition of the Decatur Review newspaper, when the University of Illinois football team traveled to Monticello to play.
This is the transcript of the article:
University Team Defeats High School Boys By a Score of 16 to 4
“The best game of football ever played in this city was played at Kratz path this afternoon between an eleven of the University of Illinois and the High School Athletic team of Monticello, which resulted in a victory for the varsity boys by a score of 16 to 4. The visiting team was much heavier than the home boys and made all their gains by center rush plays, and gradually forced the home team back to the goal for touchdowns. At every attempt at an end play the varsity boys would lose from five to ten yards. Some excellent playing was done by Piatt, Kratz and Prackard of the home team. The game was full of snap and football vim from the start to finish. Time of Halves – Twenty minutes Touch Downs – Champaign 4 Monticello 1”
I don’t know if that’s still considered the best game ever played in Monticello – I’ve seen some games that would probably be more entertaining than that – but that shows the importance of the game to Monticello.
The high school that stands today is not air-conditioned and it’s the same one that my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, myself and my sisters all attended. If you walk down the hallways and look at the photos of each graduating class, it’s a family history, not only for my family but for many, with photographs of everyone from me to my cousin to aunts to grandparents to second cousins to great uncles to pretty much everyone in town. Almost haunted by a visceral connection to everyone that has come before, their realized and abandoned dreams.
The football field still stands on Kratz Road, maybe in the same spot the Sages played the Illini. The green striped field between the two goal posts is among the most sacred places in Monticello, something I say both as a joke and with complete seriousness.
I have made fun of the field and the affection that many people hold toward it a great deal. When Monticello hosted its semifinal playoff game and it snowed a few days before the game, the town was put on alert. Anyone with free time and a free shovel was asked to come move the snow, even though the weather forecast predicted it would melt before Saturday. The sheer ridiculousness of that notion blew up a group chat. Also, the field is watered extravagantly, much to the ire of my friends from high school who were on the soccer team, which had patches of dead grass. In high school, our principal and a bunch of teachers rode their motorcycles onto the field in an attempt to seem hip and relatable. My senior year, a group of girls in my class forked the field as our senior prank.
But there’s also something gravitating about that space. During summer, my friends and I would sometimes sneak onto the field and eat Filippo’s pizza at the 50-yard line. Or we’d play catch on the healthiest grass in town. That draw might have been because we weren’t supposed to be there. But nevertheless it felt like a sacred place, a holy ground connecting generation after generation, tying the community together the way only football can.
I wasn’t a football player. I played in fifth grade and was a cornerback and even got a pass break-up and had fun. In sixth grade, I had an early growth spurt and was moved to defensive end, which was much less fun, the most memorable part of my season being pancaked by a Villa Grove tight end and having a sore tailbone for months, struggling to do sit-ups in PE class without out hurting my rear end. In high school, I had a job working on the chain gang for those middle school games.
But I loved going to the games. Me and my friends would lead cheers of “Football!”, something that seems almost mocking but was genuine. It got students who weren’t interested in the game to be excited about the grandeur of the Friday night rituals.
The “Football!” cheer was the second-most popular among students, who preferred the “Sa-Ges” chant, where one student would yell “Say” and the rest would yell “jizz”, a double entendre that still elicits chuckles to this day.
During my senior year, I was a chest painter at football games, wearing the exclamation mark. But after one game, the school decided to ban chest painting after complaints about girls wearing just sports bras in public. The student body organized, sending letters to the principal, calling the local news and petitioning for the tradition to come back. After one game without chest painters, the administration relented, as long as we put on shirts to go into the cafeteria. On Friday, at Memorial Stadium, I saw students without shirts on and remembered that tradition and the value our organization had.
Despite being in Montana, I was able to feel connected to the game. I texted friends at the game, my mother at the game, friends watching at home and high school preps writers that I worked with at the student newspaper in college who were likely only watching because of my incessant talking about the Sages for four years.
There’s plenty to say about the actual game, a 24-20 win that can be placed on a team-wide effort, but also on Alek Bundy, who scored all three of the Sages’ touchdowns, including a 95-yard screen pass that became a touchdown, and had the game-winning interception, but what was most surprising was the connection I felt.
More than 1,000 miles away from Memorial Stadium, I started crying as the clock ticked down on Monticello High School’s first state championship in football.
That may sound like a ridiculous thing to say, but I guarantee it feels even more ridiculous as you’re sitting alone in the dark, watching a bunch of high schoolers play a game a two day’s drive away from you.
I’ve always felt that the cyclical nature of the state championship games minimizes the experience. Not that I’ve ever actually been to a game, but I would watch on TV at home as our family set up our Christmas tree or Christmas village on the day after Thanksgiving as local schools would play and we would root on conference rivals. But the on-field reporter conducts an interview with the player of the game, with the coach, then send it back to the booth, where they say “What a game! Next, we have the 4A state championship game,” cycling from the greatest moment of the young players’ lives to the next. But that minimalistic approach almost made it more intimate because in order to celebrate you couldn’t sit in front of the screen watching highlights. You had to talk to someone.
Shortly after the game ended, my mom called me from the Memorial Stadium parking lot. She had gone to the game with my sister, Claire, a few of me and Claire’s friends, and my mother’s friends. But she drove to the game by herself, so she had a more-than-half-hour drive home that normally takes 23 minutes but had a non-negligible amount of traffic.
“It’s like getting out of a busy Illini game,” she said.
Anyone who follows Illini football – which is 95 percent of Monticello Sages fans – knows that it has been a few years since there was an actual Illini game of significance, but their lack of success contributes even more to the joy of the Sages’ success.
Someone tweeted thank you to Coach Cully Welter for making them have fun at Memorial Stadium, something that hasn’t happened in a few years.
My mom told me about my classmates that sat near her at the game. Ones I haven’t talked to in years but would have gladly celebrated a state championship with.
“People were sitting with their parents,” she said. “I was kind of surprised.”
But to me, that made sense. The generational connection of Sages football is the reason the connectivity is so special. The players said this, but they were playing for each team before. I might not know Braden Snyder and Alek Bundy, but I knew Will Lieb and Matt Palla. My mom might not know them, but she knew Mitch Bloom, Barry Elson, Rusty Ernst and Chuck Foran. The former players all took a photo together. I might not know the parents of the children now, but I know the love and work the parents of my peers poured into raising their kids. I might not know very many of the band members, but I know how hard each of my sisters practiced and how excited they would be to play at Memorial Stadium. Monticello doesn’t rely on the football to realize its collective dream, but the team plays a role in the realization of the blood, sweat and tears parents and kids and teachers and business owners put into making the town unique.
That’s why people my age still want to go back to high school football games, to thank their parents, to thank the town, for making them who they are. That’s what makes the community special, and the football team gives everyone a chance to celebrate that distinctiveness. That’s why 6,000 people from a town of 5,500 came out to watch a high school football game in the rain on the day after Thanksgiving.
My mother drove around the Square once she got back to town. She said there wasn’t a place to park in all of downtown Monticello. She said she thought about going to the pep rally but was cold and wet from sitting in the rain all afternoon and felt like it was more for the high schoolers and their parents.
Later Friday night, Monticello Sages Athletics posted a live video on Facebook of the team getting back to town. The procession was led by two fire trucks, blaring their horns and illuminating trees with their blue and red lights. The two coach buses were also flanked by five police cars, as well as a train of parents and other supporters. Whoever was taking the video was standing in the cold rain, surrounded by other drivers who were honking their horns in support of the team. Fireworks exploded in the background.
That might seem extravagant, but the video gave me chills more than 1,000 miles away.