HEBRON – The teammates stared straight ahead in silence, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, allowing the words coming out of the nearby boom box to sink in.
For much of the previous hour, heart-pounding music blared from the speakers, bouncing from one wall of the cramped locker room to another, leaking into the hall. But now, as Alden-Hebron’s football team prepared to take the field for the sixth time in the 2012 season, the only break in the silence inside the Giants’ pregame sanctuary was the sound of Al Pacino’s voice.
“You gotta look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes. Now, I think you are going to see a guy that will go that inch with you. You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice for this team. Because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him. That’s a team, gentlemen.”
As the soundtrack played on, Chip McKay, one of six seniors on the Giants’ roster, bowed his head and glared intently at the floor. Nearby, offensive and defensive lineman Anthony Rajkowski, a 245-pound city kid who moved to Hebron two years ago and joined the team after his family happened to drive by the school during a game on a Saturday, nodded his head with every word in affirmation.
As Pacino’s “Inch By Inch” speech from “Any Given Sunday” reached a crescendo, the looks on the 18 faces in the room intensified.
The crux of Pacino’s message, played before each game, is nothing new for the Giants, who learned long ago to believe in themselves and in each other.
“Can’t make no mistakes today,” said McKay, who splits time between tight end and linebacker and who, along with quarterback Bryce Lalor, is one of his team’s most vocal leaders. “Giants on three.”
With 28 minutes left before kickoff, the teammates returned to the locker room from warm-ups, still focused on the business at hand.
Lalor, son of coach John Lalor, had spent part of the morning sitting alone in front of an open locker, hands clasped. Lalor would be one of the players Ottawa Marquette would key on. He leaned forward, stared straight ahead, understanding if the Giants were to have any shot, he had to play well.
Senior offensive and defensive lineman Edwin Gorostieta felt the same. Gorostieta made his rounds, smacking his hands against teammates’ shoulder pads. Gorostieta is quiet by nature – the kid who is first to go up and encourage a teammate after they’ve been corrected by a coach.
But he is also one of the team’s most dedicated players, having learned the value of hard work laboring on the kind of family farm more than a handful of the Giants’ players grew up on.
“Let’s go,” he said, his voice rising with intensity. “Let’s go.”
As the sun glared through the window that hangs over the long row of green metal lockers, another voice broke the silence.
The Giants’ coach stood in front of the team, wearing a green shirt with “Coach John” embroidered on it, jeans, tennis shoes and a baseball cap. Lalor is a Hebron lifer, a 1980 A-H graduate who still holds the school’s single-season record for tackles – 128 solos – as a senior when he played linebacker, one of four positions he played during his Giants’ career.
This is his team, his boys, his program. On this Saturday, more than any other team this season, everyone on the roster – from Nick Beck to Logan Yerk – must play with the assurance that the Giants can compete against anyone. Even the state-ranked Crusaders.
Lalor is the one common denominator in each of the team photos that hangs in the halls. He’s used to not having the luxury of a large roster. He took the program over 10 years ago after serving as an assistant coach in 1985 once his football career at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville concluded.
Since he’s been back, Lalor says he has coached kids who believe because they’re from Hebron, they can’t amount to much. And he’s spent the past decade telling them that mindset is wrong.
Heading into Saturday’s game, with the Giants in the midst of a three-game winning streak, Lalor wouldn’t allow fear to creep into his players’ heads.
“This is a hell of a football team – they’re good,” Lalor said, beginning a 3-minute 12-second speech that included his final instructions before the Giants took the field . “We’ve gotten a lot better. Play like that. This is going to be a tough challenge. Let ’em know they’re in Hebron, Illinois. Let ’em know they’re playing on our concrete football field.
“Play out of the box ’cause we ain’t soft. The 18 of us ain’t soft at all.”
Excuses don’t tend to play well in a small farming community like Hebron, a village of 1,216 and neighboring Alden, an unincorporated community that didn’t register on the 2000 census because it’s so tiny. Like everything else in this northern Illinois community, situated in a break in the cornfields that line Route 47, football requires sacrifice. Especially when you represent a school that has 123 students.
The two-story brick schoolhouse, like the village limits it resides within, is known primarily for basketball. The school’s halls are dominated by reminders of the 1952 Illinois state championship team. Visitors still stop to take pictures and reminisce, remembering a crowning moment still memorialized on Hebron’s water tower.
The village’s homage to basketball even shows up on Hebron’s Main Street – where 14 basketball hoops line the street, each displaying the name of a different local business like My Brother’s Bar or The Dari Company, Hebron’s popular ice cream stand with “Go Giants” painted on the window.
Hebron’s football Giants are doing their best to leave their own legacy as a team that has learned to win despite being perhaps the state’s smallest football program. Because of the week’s homecoming festivities, more fans than normal found their way into the four sections of bleachers that make up the entirety of the field’s seating capacity Saturday.
While the Giants went through pregame warm-ups, cheerleaders unraveled long strands of green and silver tinsel, draping them over the snow fence that separates the back of the end zone from the line of cars parked on a diagonal along McKinley Avenue.
Music streamed from speakers attached to a midfield tower that resembles a county fair review stand more than a traditional press box. The aerial view of the field is accessible only by the 13-rung extension ladder that leans against the tower that is decorated by seven signs, celebrating either Indian Trails Conference championships or some of the eight consecutive Illinois High School Association playoff appearances from 2003 to 2010.
Occasionally, the sound faded in and out and then in again, which is only a minor inconvenience in an old-school setting that includes a no-frills scoreboard on which Crandall’s Restaurant – the eatery on the edge of town that boasts World Famous Broasted Chicken – receives top billing.
Minutes before kickoff, the 18 teammates walked single-file from the school before charging onto the field and through a banner held by the school’s cheerleaders. In his locker room speech, Lalor commended his players for not allowing the distractions of homecoming week to get in the way. But he warned it couldn’t stop there.
“You’re ready,” he said. “Now, go prove it.”
Two weeks before, the Giants had faced Chicago International Charter School-Longwood, a team with 40 players. A-H won, 45-8.
Even though the Giants are playing at full-strength by their final game of September, the first five weeks of the season haven’t been easy.
The season started with only 13 players eligible, forcing Lalor and his staff to be patient. After two losses, the Giants won three straight, gaining confidence – and players – with each week.
When Lalor showed up for the first day of practice, he surveyed his players and realized the road could be tough. But he also remembers 2006, when he walked through town, facing a season when the Giants had lost a wealth of talent to graduation and returned only six seniors.
“Boy, coach, it’s going to be kind of a tough year this year,” one of Hebron’s townspeople told Lalor that day.
“Well, we’ll see,” Lalor responded. “Our kids will work hard.”
That year, the Giants reached the state quarterfinals with an 11-1 record.
Lalor senses the same kind of grit this year.
Before the win over CICS-Longwood, burly A-H assistant coach Adam Burmeister, dressed in weathered jeans, a green polo shirt and work boots, made his rounds during pregame warmups, ensuring the Giants had come to play.
“We cannot be complacent,” Burmeister barked. “We have got to fire up. Let’s get angry. Right now. Who wants it?”
In the past, the Giants’ roster was at least 30 strong – still small – but a mass of football talent compared to what Lalor takes into games every week this season.
Lalor, who is also the school’s athletic director, admits he winces a bit every time one of his players remains on the ground longer than they should after the whistle blows the play dead. With a team not even big enough to run 11-on-11 in practice, replacements on both sides of the ball come at a premium.
That reality has only made the Giants tougher.
“Our kids have the attitude that they’ve got to get up,” Lalor said. “That’s almost a mindset – some other teams we play, maybe that kid stays on the ground. Our kid’s got to get up.”
To make up for the shortage of practice players, the Giants are religious in their film study. They’ll scout opponents using video footage and then simulate what they can in workouts, running a full defensive alignment and using key offensive players to put into action what they’ve seen on film.
Bryce Lalor admits at times that the lack of numbers can be discouraging. The school offers only one boys’ fall sport – football – leaving John Lalor the pick of the school’s entire male population. Still, there are only 18 who choose to participate.
“We watched a lot of film, we worked really hard in practice, but I don’t think we really were expecting the size,” said senior Logan Yerk, who plays running back and defensive back while also handling the kicking duties. “I feel like some of our guys got scared.”
Sometimes believing isn’t enough against bigger schools like Marquette, which ended A-H’s three-game winning streak with a 34-14 win.
With three games remaining in the regular season and the Giants likely needing three wins to make the playoffs, Lalor warns his team not to drop its head and to find a way to overcome adversity. But as always, they’ll have to believe in a roster that more than half of which is made up of the “little guys” as Lalor refers to his 10 freshmen and sophomores.
“That just shows that we’re a team,” Yerk said. “We’re coming together as a team.
“We don’t know the freshmen very much, but [we’ve gotten] to know them as they become part of the varsity team because we’re only running the 18 guys we’ve got.”
Like their town, the Giants won’t get wrapped up in worrying about what they don’t have.
Instead, they preach camaraderie, believing they have better chemistry than most of their opponents while representing a high school football program that won’t allow its size to be an excuse.
“It just shows you what you can overcome,” McKay said. “You don’t worry about your numbers, you don’t worry about how big your guys are – you just go out and play ball.”