On Friday night, Carmel’s football team hosts Joliet Catholic in one of the oldest rivalries in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. Between 2003-11, the schools either won or shared the ESCC title each season. Author Jon J. Kerr spent the 2010 season embedded with Carmel’s football team. His book, “The Boys in Brown,” to be released later this year, follows the Corsairs through the 2010 season. Kerr gave Pioneer Press permission to excerpt the section of his book about Carmel’s game against Joliet Catholic played on Sept. 10, 2010. Find more information about the book at boysinbrown.com.
Click here to read the section of the book about Carmel’s game against Libertyville on Sept. 3, 2010.
Carmel starts its second drive of the game on its 23-yard line. The score is 7-7, only a few minutes have gone by after the game’s breathtaking start. After a series of pitches, dives and keeps — this is option football, methodical, plodding — the Corsairs are at their own 46-yard line, second down and 7. On film, the coaches saw how Joliet Catholic’s defensive backs played just off the line of scrimmage. They had to respect the option pitch. Often, the safety was also playing the run and not providing help over the top. The perfect time to call the game’s first pass.
Offensive coordinator Ben Berg calls the play into the headset (“89 ends right”). Senior quarterback Brian Serio runs towards the sidelines to get the play from head coach Andy Bitto. Serio calls it in the huddle, then walks to the line of scrimmage with his teammates. He takes the snap from junior center Shane Toub, and fakes a handoff to junior fullback Jordan Kos, dipping his shoulders slightly. On the right flat, just by the yardage makers, senior receiver Ryan Cappis takes the first steps of a streak route. Serio backpedals five more yards, and then while planting his left foot into a perfectly aligned pocket, launches a deep ball. The Joliet Catholic cornerback had bitten ever so slightly on Serio’s ball fake. His hesitation allows Cappis to gain a step. At the Hilltoppers’ 26-yard line, Cappis catches Serio’s pass in stride, sprinting untouched the rest of the way for a Corsairs touchdown.
On the sidelines, adrenaline flows like hot brown lava. On that drive, the Corsairs acted very much like the swift, bounty-seeking pirates their nickname defines.
“They can’t stop us!” screams Logan Lester, a senior offensive guard.
“That was awesome!” Cappis yells to Serio.
Before they can finish a swig from their water bottles, the Hilltoppers counter punch. Starting from Carmel’s 23-yard line, junior running back Malin Jones takes an inside handoff from senior quarterback Breshion Tucker. Jones, the target of several Division I schools, finds a seam between the hash marks and within seconds, is in the Corsairs end zone. Touchdown. 14-14. There is still 5:03 left in the first quarter.
The pace of this game is like a Six Flags roller coaster. It has to slow down. Adjustments will be made. Then it’s a matter of basic football — who will block and tackle better than the other team?
Right after the Hilltoppers’ extra point, Bitto turns to defensive coordinator Dan Potempa and asks calmly what everyone would like to know. “What is going on?” Potempa’s response is, “We’ve got it.”
At 10:12 p.m., the clock runs down to zero, the final horn blasting through Baker Stadium. The scoreboard reads Carmel 31, Joliet Catholic 28. From the south end zone, students dressed as Carmelite hillbillies (the dress theme of the evening) storm the field, waving brown flags, thrilled to share this momentous victory.
Shaking hands with Hilltoppers coach Dan Sharp, Bitto lets out a grin cloaked more in relief than revelry. Sharp smiles back (“That was a heckuva game coach,” he says through gritted teeth), hiding his disappointment at the loss but grateful to be part of such a terrific athletic contest.
Serio is chatting with reporters at midfield, smiling the biggest grin you can imagine. He threw only two passes all night, both for touchdowns. Coach Michael Fitzgibbons is standing in the north end zone, staring back at the opposite end of the field, where his son, Mike, a senior safety, is talking to a reporter. Fitz, as everyone calls him, is talking to no one in particular.
“You know what? Perspective is everything. Of course we’ll enjoy it. But they’ll be another one next year,” he said, summing up the competitiveness of the rivalry. A man walks up, shakes his hand and says, “thank God your son has none of your athletic ability.” Fitz laughs a hearty laugh — he only has the one — at the truth. “He’s a pretty good player, isn’t he?” he says back. His son played a great game, intercepting a pass and making a key tackle on a fake punt late in the fourth quarter. Then his mood shifts from joyous to reflective. “I always stayed outside during the championship seasons, the big ones when the guys were being interviewed, while Andy was talking to the press. I’d wait for them,” he said. His voice slows to a lyrical pace, his glance unwavering from Mike, some 50 yards away. “But I never thought I’d ever stand out here when my son was being interviewed…”
“He kicked the snot out of some people tonight!” said another fan running by.
“I never thought I’d be standing out here for my kid. Pretty good stuff,” Fitz said.
As Fitz waxes on, not wanting the rapturous moment to end, players and students begin to wander over to the north end zone. A circle forms, extending out to the 10-yard line. The celebratory cackling has hushed. Fans leaving the stands stop and lean against the railing. On the field, all bodies within the circle clasp hands, taking a knee. In the middle of the circle stand four players — Mike Fitzgibbons, Jake Larson, Michael Cohen and Paul Madison. Still in full uniform, they survey the scene unfolding in front of them. Standing the furthest to the left, Mike Fitzgibbons extends out his left hand. Larson grabs it with his right. Madison clasps his right hand with Larson’s left, Cohen the same with Madison. They wait for a few students to join the circle around them.
The stadium lights still glow, canopied below a clear September sky. The scoreboard shines, still reading “Carmel 31, Joliet Catholic 28.” All heads bow. It’s absurdly silent, as if all of humanity were taking a deep breath.
Then they pray.