Jesse Bobbit and Cam Kuksa went through all of the grueling aspects of being a high school football player — off-season weightlifting, camp in June and two-a-days under the hot August sun.
The Palatine duo was ready to reap the rewards of their hard work. Such as playing on Friday nights, starting in Week 1 against Montini.
But unfortunately for both, they were afforded only a small taste in that opener.
Kuksa was hurt on the second play from scrimmage, breaking his ankle after a lineman fell on top of it while he was making a tackle. And Bobbit, who started despite being questionable with a stress fracture in his leg, went down on the very next play with a fractured rib in his back after making a tackle.
“I remember looking over and seeing pain in (Cam’s) eyes,” Bobbit said.
Just like that, Palatine was without the reigning Mid-Suburban West defensive player of the year in Bobbit and perhaps the most dynamic two-way threat in the area in Kuksa for an extended period of time.
Not exactly the ideal way to start your senior year.
“I didn’t want to believe it, really,” Kuksa said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was just in awe for about a week or two.”
The two star safety/wide receivers have taken significantly different paths leading up to this point, but each has led to Saturday’s Class 8A quarterfinal at No. 2 Loyola (10-1). And for No. 3 Palatine, their presence in the lineup is vital.
Bobbit, who has missed three games this season, has been a fixture in the lineup at safety. He got pulled up to varsity as a freshman, joining older brothers Chad and Cody, but quickly made his own name for himself by picking off Cody in practice.
“If he’s not intimidated by Cody, one of the best quarterbacks in the area at the time, he was ready for varsity football,” said Palatine coach Tyler Donnelly. “It wasn’t because we didn’t have anyone. He was genuinely that good.”
And that production hasn’t slowed a bit as Bobbit earned all-area honors last season and this season broke assistant coach Sergio Lund’s career interception record with 17.
The presence of Alex Nawrot and emergence of junior Eric Theis has allowed the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bobbit to shift his focus from offense, where he also started as a sophomore and junior, to defense and doing what he loves most: hitting people. And no one does it with more ferocity.
“What I love about him is that he loves to hit people,” Donnelly said. “How many times do you see defensive backs hit hard? If you get any yards on him, he takes it personal. That’s the mark of a great football player.”
“He may be the best player that I’ve ever coached.”
While Bobbit was a star right away, Kuksa was more of a late bloomer. Just 5-feet-6 and 140 pounds as a sophomore, Kuksa wasn’t promoted to the varsity that year alongside classmates Bobbit, Josh Baldus, Lucas Rago and Dan Riddle.
And heading into a junior season in which he wound up making the all-area team, Kuksa wasn’t even playing offense.
It took constant pleading with the coaching staff but after 2 interceptions against Wheeling raised a few eyebrows, the starting safety finally got his chance on offense in the second half against Schaumburg.
“He kept coming to the sidelines and said, ‘Keep giving me the ball. I’ll win the game.’ And he did,” Donnelly said of Kuksa’s 10 carries and 135 yards. “If there is a kid that can singlehandedly win a game of football, he did that night. We said it shows how dumb we are as coaches that it took us five weeks to figure out that he’s one heck of an offensive player.”
Ball in his hands, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Kuksa possesses the unique ability to avoid defenders. But he’s also willing to lower his shoulder for a few extra yards.
“He’s just so athletic and has such confidence and body control, it’s amazing,” Donnelly said. “Once he gets the ball, he’s a threat all the time.”
And Kuksa has finally been able to showcase that talent the last four weeks. Since he returned in Week 8 against Barrington, he’s racked up 432 yards from scrimmage (332 receiving) and 9 touchdowns.
“I didn’t think that stuff would happen,” Kuksa said of the injury. “But it does, and it’s life. You just have to stay positive and try to work your way back up.”
“It was a relief, and it’s just fun to be back out there with all of my friends. We have a special team this year.”
Injuries have slowed the recruiting process, but neither will have a problem finding a home at the next level. Both have offers on the table from North Dakota while Bobbit also has one from Eastern Illinois and Kuksa from Western Illinois. Bobbit could play either safety or outside linebacker while Kuksa is being recruited as a safety and slot receiver.
With their stable of athletes, the Pirates have lived up to their billing as preseason favorites, earning victories in ten straight games and winning the West outright. Though the regular season success without them was great, there’s no denying that to get where they want to go, Bobbit and Kuksa are of the utmost importance.
To wit, last season ended with a second-round loss to Glenbard North, a game Bobbit missed due to a concussion and in which Kuksa sat the entire second half with a concussion of his own.
A victory tomorrow would avenge a 2010 quarterfinal loss to the Ramblers and gets the Pirates one step closer to their first state title.
“It’s flown by but it seems like we’ve been doing it forever,” Bobbit said. “It’s been fun and we’re going to try to keep this going for three more weeks. It would be awesome to be down in Champaign. That’s our goal, and it has been the whole season.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.