Down they went, one by one.
Mundelein football coach George Kaider predicted it.
A group of about six boys, buddies who ran in the same circles, stopped by Kaider’s office one day last winter to tell him that they were interested in joining the football team.
None of them had ever played before. And all of them had some behavioral baggage. They were looking for a way to stay out of trouble.
Kaider, who had just taken over the program, welcomed them with open arms. But he doubted their sincerity, not to mention their fortitude.
After all, grueling workouts before dawn aren’t for the casually committed.
“I kept telling them that I didn’t know if they were going to make it,” Kaider said during his team’s 5:30 a.m. weightlifting sessions day in and day out during the dead of winter. “I was trying to motivate them and use (reverse psychology). I would say, ‘I think you guys are going to quit.’ ”
Sure enough, one after another, the boys did quit. Except for one of them.
Julio Sermeno didn’t let tough, early morning workouts beat him. Instead, he let football save him.
In an often painful and grueling winless season for the Mustangs, Sermeno has been a ray of hope and inspiration, and a reminder that wins and losses aren’t always the most important byproducts of high school sports.
“Football makes me feel like I actually did something good in high school,” Sermeno said.
A starter at nose guard all season for the Mustangs, Sermeno has found the strength and the will power to turn his back on a destructive, checkered past. As recently as a year ago, Sermeno’s rap sheet included drug and alcohol use as well as gang activity. He had also been expelled from school twice.
Playing football has kept him far away from that life.
“I don’t know where it all went wrong, but I was influenced by the wrong people and, you know, you’re a teenager and you have an immature brain,” said Sermeno, now a 17-year-old senior. “I was hanging out with people who were doing drugs and doing stuff with gangs. I had really screwed up.”
The trouble started at West Oak Middle School and got so bad that Sermeno was expelled for an entire year.
The same thing happened during his sophomore year at Mundelein.
“It was so hard for my parents,” Sermeno said of Camilo and Cristina. “They couldn’t understand what I was doing. They were embarrassed and they would tell me that they couldn’t even go on the street with their son being expelled from school. It was terrible for them, but even after the first time, I still didn’t learn.”
When Sermeno was expelled from Mundelein, he was assigned to the Lake County Regional Office of Education in order to take classes and work on life skills.
He returned to Mundelein as a junior, midway through the school year.
“(The Lake County Regional Office of Education) can be a sad place for kids because they don’t want to be there, away from their friends,” Kaider said. “It’s an eye-opener. I think when Julio got back (to Mundelein), it really clicked with him that he needed to do something different. He wanted to do something different.”
Always a decent student, Sermeno also came from a loving family in which both parents lived at home. In that regard, he was better off than a lot of the kids he ran with. The problem for him was filling idle time with constructive activities and finding better influences to associate with at school and outside of school.
Paul Thatcher, Sermeno’s guidance counselor, was ready to suggest something a bit outside the box. Sermeno had never spent a day during his high school career playing sports. And he had never played football in his life.
But since Thatcher works right next door to Kaider, also a guidance counselor, he had football on his mind.
“I remember talking to Julio one day about how football could be such a positive for him,” Thatcher said. “When he got back, he knew that something had to change and I told him that I thought it was important for him to be a part of something.
“It’s been great to see the changes in Julio since he started with football. He has goals now, and a direction. He’s gone from wanting to just graduate from high school, to wanting to go to college now, too. He is motivated to succeed. He has such a desire to move his life in the right direction. I don’t think he’ll ever go back to the way things were.”
Sermeno loves his new life too much.
He lives for games like last week against North Chicago in which he forced 2 fumbles and recovered one as well. He’s also getting better grades and making friends with students he never would have talked to just a year ago.
“One of the best parts of football is getting to have teammates and being friends with all of them,” Sermeno said. “There are so many good influences on my team, and we all get along and support each other.
“A lot of the guys have told me that if it weren’t for football, they probably would have never gotten to know me and if they had seen me in the hallway, they probably wouldn’t have liked me because they knew about what I used to do. It just goes to show you that you can’t always judge a book by the cover because that might not be what the person is really about. No matter how bad things are, there is good in most people.”
It didn’t take long for Sermeno to convince his teammates and coaches of that.
He showed up to the early morning workouts like clockwork, day after day after day. In fact, he never missed a single one.
Sermeno also never lost his enthusiasm, even as his friends were dropping like flies.
“Guys respect that,” Kaider said. “The other guys see a kid who is trying to change his life around and trying to take a stand. Julio commands a lot of respect on our team.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Sermeno also commands attention on the football field. His work ethic and dedication transformed him into a relentless lineman that opposing offenses cannot afford to ignore.
“When we played Warren two weeks ago, they had a difficult time blocking Julio,” Kaider said. “He was in their backfield all night long. He made a ton of plays. He’s quick, aggressive and I’m telling you that if I had him two years instead of just this one, he’d be an all-area player. He’s that good. It’s amazing what Julio has been able to do in one year having never played football before.”
Sermeno isn’t lamenting getting such a late start. He simply lives in the moment, cherishing the experience as well as his second chance at a healthy, productive future.
He’s also excited about getting his younger brother Diego, an eighth grader, involved in football.
“My parents say that football would be good for my brother. They don’t want him to go through what I did and they think football could really help him like it helped me,” Sermeno said. “Football has kept me on track. I have a different mentality and there are a lot of things I want to do now.”
Sermeno, who is getting A’s in some of his classes, is anxious to visit colleges. He’s planning to get a business degree. A year ago, Sermeno thought he had no future.
“I think I’ve surprised a lot of people,” Sermeno said. “I kind of surprised myself, too. I’m really proud. This is something I’m going to tell my kids about. I’ll tell them I had some downs in high school but I also had some pretty good ups.”
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