As a kid Dennis Cromer tore into his local newspaper seeking the scoop on his favorite sports teams -- the Rock Island Rocks, the Moline Maroons. In the Quad Cities, high schools owned the front page of the sports section, burying the Bears, Cubs and White Sox further inside.
Once for a birthday party the big draw wasn't a clown or the bowling alley. His parents arranged for a Rock Island basketball player to visit the house and shoot hoops with Denny and his friends.
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"My favorite player at the time wasn't somebody on the Sox, it was somebody who was on the high school basketball team," said Cromer, now 61, who retired as Fenton's varsity boys basketball coach after last season, his 39th year involved with the sport either as a coach or athletic director.
"My heroes were kids who were playing on the high school team. Over the years I've had a lot of heroes who've played on the high school team, only now they weren't older than me," said Cromer, who became more interested in spending time with his 2-year-old granddaughter than in the yearlong grind coaching has become.
Relationships of all types -- coach/athlete, teammates, players and the sports they play -- make this world go around. They're forged by people like Cromer, who arrived at Fenton in 1985 from 200-student AlWood High, north of Galesburg. Fenton's athletic director from 1987-2000, he oversaw 22 sports rather than six at AlWood and was basketball coach three separate terms, 12 seasons in all.
"I think there's a great value in participating in high school sports, and you don't need a packed gym to necessarily gain those things we profess are important in high school sports -- the ability to set a goal and try to work toward it, working with teammates, competing. I don't think my idea of sports changed, but the venue of sports changed a little bit," he said.
Fenton has never been a basketball power. The Bison averaged better than 15 wins from 2004-2007 in Cromer's last term, among Fenton's strongest seasons. Last year the Bison struggled to a 3-25 mark.
Obviously that's tough on everyone. In prep sports, however, record is not the end-all, or at least it shouldn't be.
"You can be a success whether you're ahead at the end of the game or not," Cromer said. "You can really see the growth of kids, or you could really see the bonding, the appreciation of participation even in times when your season may not have been successful from a won-loss perspective."
Occasionally he receives a letter from a former player re-establishing contact. From one of his early Fenton teams, Todd Bertulis, now a battalion commander in the Army, presented the coach with an American flag that flew over company headquarters in the Middle East. It remains in the school trophy case.
Talk about heroes.
"That bond you have with kids because of that competition and the emotions that go with it are something that I really enjoy," said Cromer. He's bound to miss that, as will the Bison.
Band of brothers
Steve Szpejnowski and Lenny Radtke are preparing for a big football game. Once more.
The Glenbard North graduates played together in the Panthers' 27-7 loss to Maine South in the 2000 Class 6A state championship football game. A senior, Szpejnowski made 15 tackles and 3 for loss; Radtke, a junior, made 4 tackles.
"That's kind of how we had our connection in high school, I played inside linebacker and he played outside linebacker," said Szpejnowski, son of former Streamwood and Bartlett boys basketball coach Leo Szpejnowski.
"That's where we kind of get that 'band of brothers'-type bond."
More than a decade later they're together again, with the Chicago Slaughter of the Indoor Football League. This time Szpejnowski is a defensive line coach while the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Radtke is a mainstay at linebacker for the Slaughter, second in the league with 141 tackles.
At 7:35 p.m. Friday the 6-7 Slaughter hosts the 5-8 Lehigh Valley Steelhawks at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. It's the teams' regular-season finale with a playoff berth on the line for Chicago, whose roster includes locals Kyle Jenkins (Driscoll) and Chris Nendick (Naperville Central).
Szpejnowski, a young South Elgin history teacher who coached the College of DuPage's defensive line the last two years, knew Radtke from the Carol Stream Panthers youth league. It was high school where they sealed their bond.
"Once you've gone through practices and doubles and the battles on the field, it just kind of turned into a deeper connection. ... It's almost like you earned a lifelong friend," he said.
After high school their relationship faded a bit. Szpejnowski became a four-year letterman at Augustana, a two-time all-College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin linebacker. Under coach John Thorne at North Central College, Radtke earned All-America nods from the American Football Coaches Association, D3 football.com, Football Gazette and The Associated Press. He's North Central's leading all-time tackler with 466 between 2002-05.
"We were such competitors in the game, it was kind of awkward," Szpejnowski said.
Now, despite the coach-player relationship the awkwardness is gone. In fact that 2000 Glenbard North football team still seems a cohesive unit, according to these two old Panthers.
"We're a team, to the point now where if you're hanging out in Carol Stream you'll see the same guys hanging out together," Szpejnowski said. "To this day I still hang out with Dom Demma and Brian Mitchell, people from that downstate team."
He said Radtke, at age 27, still plays for a love of the game that hasn't waned.
"There wasn't much that was more important than sports other than family, pretty much, and even then sports was pretty close," Radtke said. "It shaped who I am, the man, all the things you learn through sports as it applies to your life."
"You never get too much adversity that you can't overcome," he said, citing one of Thorne's lessons.
Football with the Slaughter is a little different, he said, since money is involved. But not that different.
"When you're on the field with the guys, in the film room, on a bus with the guys it's just like high school," Radtke said. "You're a competitive kid and you just want to win."
Amanda Fox, running for Naperville Central, finished seventh individually at the Class 3A girls cross country meet in 2009 as a sophomore. In the spring she placed 13th in the 3,200-meter run at the state track finals.
Then came a dark junior year by her standards: 34th in cross, though she rebounded by May to finish ninth in the 3,200 to earn all-state honors.
An adjustment was in order.
"Senior year, I knew it was my last and I just wanted to end on the best note possible," she said. "I started by changing my form and just trying to improve myself and improve my mental attitude, too, and that really helps."
Fox won Class 3A cross country last fall and came back last month to take third in the 3,200 at state track.
Positive mental attitude works.
"Just knowing that even when you put in all the hard work, even if it doesn't pay off for one year, never give up and always keep trying," said Fox, whose father, Jerry, signed her up for a 10-kilometer race as a fifth-grader to start her competitive running.
"Like the time period when I was down and I wasn't seeing the results I wanted to, I was able to stay positive and I used that summer to regroup. I was able to believe in myself and just able to grow."
Sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, swimming and track meld individual and team aspects. Fox, a National Honor Society student who said she graduated with about a 3.90 grade-point average, finds her contributions to the team more rewarding than solo success.
Perhaps that's why she was named a team co-captain along with Kailey Mikulec, Kelli Erickson and Rachel Skinner. At last month's state meet in Charleston, Fox heard the cheers of her current teammates and Redhawks grads in the stands for support.
Fox will move on to Illinois this August, on a cross country and track scholarship. Experiences such as hers, though, endure.
"When I entered (high school) I was more shy because I didn't know anyone," she said. "But then when I got moved on to the varsity after the first race all the seniors and other varsity girls just really took me under their wing and were really supportive, made me feel like a part of the varsity. I just became really close to them.
"From there on out, other seniors started graduating and I became close to the underclassmen, too, and we were able to form a really tight bond for everyone. I've been able to keep that kind of relationship with seniors who've graduated and have been able to stay close with them. They'll be friends I'll stay close to forever.
"And since they've been a great example for me, being supportive of me, so I've tried to pass that along to other freshmen and underclassmen as well. And hopefully it'll be a continuous cycle."